Hmong American readers share their stories of immigrating to and living in the United States. Drop us a note at email@example.com 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.
Instead of using his acquittal to promote vigorous discussion, many administrators sent out statements decrying the verdict.
At universities, the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse should be an opportunity to study a divisive case that sparked complex debates about issues as varied as self-defense laws, guns, race, riots, the rights of defendants, prosecutorial missteps, media bias, and more. If administrators were doing their jobs, faculty and students would freely air a wide variety of viewpoints and have opportunities to better understand one another’s diverse perspectives. Instead, many administrators are preemptively imposing their preferred narratives.
The Rittenhouse saga began in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, amid rioting that followed the police shooting of a Black man. Rittenhouse, then 17, armed himself with an AR-15-style rifle and walked into the chaos, claiming that he intended to protect the community. He wound up shooting three men, killing two. Last week, a Wisconsin jury found him not guilty of murder, crediting his claim that, at the moment he fired, he feared for his life and acted in self-defense. This, many analysts argued, was a plausible conclusion to draw from Wisconsin law and video footage and testimony presented at trial.
People with scant illusions about Trump are volunteering to help him execute one of his Big Lies.
If Donald Trump had been supported only by people who affirmatively liked him, his attack on American democracy would never have gotten as far as it did.
Instead, at almost every turn, Trump was helped by people who had little liking for him as a human being or politician, but assessed that he could be useful for purposes of their own. The latest example: the suddenly red-hot media campaign to endorse Trump’s fantasy that he was the victim of a “Russia hoax.”
The usual suspects in the pro-Trump media ecosystem will of course endorse and repeat everything Trump says, no matter how outlandish. But it’s not pro-Trumpers who are leading the latest round of Trump-Russia denialism. This newest round of excuse-making is being sounded from more respectable quarters, in many cases by people distinguished as Trump critics. With Trump out of office—at least for the time being—they now feel free to subordinate their past concerns about him to other private quarrels with the FBI or mainstream media institutions. On high-subscription Substacks, on popular podcasts, even from within prestige media institutions, people with scant illusions about Trump the man and president are nonetheless volunteering to help him execute one of his Big Lies.
The traumas of the past year have left some people wrestling with an awful question: Am I still a good person?
Throughout the pandemic, people have had to make impossibly tough decisions. Kathleen Turner, a 52-year-old intensive-care nurse in San Francisco, has been haunted by hers. Since COVID-19 patients started overwhelming her hospital last spring, she has had to give patients sedatives knowing they would likely have lasting negative health consequences, and systematically deny relatives a chance to say goodbye to dying loved ones. Last year, Turner was following guidelines when she told a woman that she could not visit her dying mother—on Mother’s Day. “I upheld the rule on the piece of paper,” she told me. “But in terms of what would a good person do? It’s not that.” Collectively, these experiences have fundamentally shaken her sense of morality. “Am I really a good person? There’s that seed of doubt,” she said.
When life feels this precarious, it’s only natural to roll the dice on just about everything.
Gambling has become one of the defining pleasures of our time, the perfect accompaniment to an era of high-risk, rigged economies and a looming sense of collapse. Once there was Las Vegas; now there’s a Las Vegas in every phone.
You can bet on almost anything today. Elections. Literary prizes. If you have a feeling that, say, Lapuan Virkiä is going to beat Porin Pesakarhut in the women’s Superpesis, the top professional pesäpallo league in Finland, you can put your money where your mouth is. During the pandemic, as casinos and racetracks closed, you could wager on the evening’s forecast in real time, or on the upcoming winter snowfall. There was serious action on the highest daily temperatures of major American cities. Then there are the ads. If you watch sports regularly, you probably feel, as I do, that the games have become interruptions in a more or less constant barrage of wagering promotion. Gambling is swallowing sports.
The preponderance of the evidence suggests that social media is causing real damage to adolescents.
Social media gets blamed for many of America’s ills, including the polarization of our politics and the erosion of truth itself. But proving that harms have occurred to all of society is hard. Far easier to show is the damage to a specific class of people: adolescent girls, whose rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury surged in the early 2010s, as social-media platforms proliferated and expanded. Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing body and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network. Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display, and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is a mainstay of basic cable—and a rallying cry for a country that is losing touch with itself.
In 2007, in one of the first episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy Fieri visited Patrick’s Roadhouse, a railway-station-turned-restaurant in Santa Monica, California. The diner’s chef, Silvio Moreira, walked Fieri through the preparation of one of Patrick’s most notable dishes, the Rockefeller—a burger topped with mushrooms, sour cream, jack cheese, and … caviar. Fieri, looking playfully trepidatious, lifted the burger with both hands, said a fake prayer, and did what he would proceed to do thousands of times on the show: He took an enormous bite. And then he fell silent. “Wooow,” he commented, finally, shooting Moreira a what-have-you-done-to-me look.
“Different, huh?” Moreira said, grinning. “Yeah,” Fieri replied. The show’s camera discreetly cut away to the next scene.
Every year thousands of Americans die on the roads. Individuals take the blame for systemic problems.
More than 20,000 people died on American roadways from January to June, the highest total for the first half of any year since 2006. U.S. road fatalities have risen by more than 10 percent over the past decade, even as they have fallen across most of the developed world. In the European Union, whose population is one-third larger than America’s, traffic deaths dropped by 36 percent between 2010 and 2020, to 18,800. That downward trend is no accident: European regulators have pushed carmakers to build vehicles that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and governments regularly adjust road designs after a crash to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.
But in the United States, the responsibility for road safety largely falls on the individual sitting behind the wheel, or riding a bike, or crossing the street. American transportation departments, law-enforcement agencies, and news outlets frequently maintain that most crashes—indeed, 94 percent of them, according to the most widely circulated statistic—are solely due to human error. Blaming the bad decisions of road users implies that nobody else could have prevented them. That enables car companies to deflect attention from their decisions to add heft and height to the SUVs and trucks that make up an ever-larger portion of vehicle sales, and it allows traffic engineers to escape scrutiny for dangerous street designs.
A spacecraft is on its way to nudge a distant asteroid.
The last thing anyone needs to think about right now is a catastrophic asteroid impact.
And, thankfully, most of us don’t have to! Earth is not in immediate threat of a space rock. The chance that a known asteroid big enough to really do damage—or, you know, imperil our entire existence—will strike the planet in the next 100 years is insignificant. (If you want to worry about extinction, consider the extinctions brought on by climate change and other negative repercussions of our presence here on Earth.)
But it helps to be prepared for these kinds of scenarios, and luckily there are people for whom thinking about them is a full-time job. So this week, just before Thanksgiving, NASA launched a space mission to test technology that could, someday, help humanity deflect a dangerous asteroid barreling its way.
Our fears about what other people think of us are overblown and rarely worth fretting over.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
A friend of mine once shared what I considered a bit of unadulterated wisdom: “If I wouldn’t invite someone into my house, I shouldn’t let them into my head.” But that’s easier said than done. Social media has opened up our heads so that just about any trespasser can wander in. If you tweet whatever crosses your mind about a celebrity, it could quite possibly reach the phone in her hand as she sits on her couch in her house.
The real problem isn’t technology—it’s human nature. We are wired to care about what others think of us. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius observed almost 2,000 years ago, “We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own,” whether they are friends, strangers, or enemies.
The pandemic was a big social experiment that sent asthma attacks plummeting.
Nicole Lawson spent the beginning of the pandemic incredibly worried about her daughter, who has asthma. Five-year-old Scarlett’s asthma attacks were already landing her in the ER or urgent care every few months. Now a scary new virus was spreading. Respiratory viruses are known triggers of asthma attacks, and doctors also feared at the time that asthma itself could lead to more severe coronavirus infections. So Lawson’s family in Ohio hunkered down quickly and masked up often to keep Scarlett healthy.
The ensuing months, to everyone’s surprise, turned into “this beautiful year,” Lawson told me. Scarlett hasn’t had a single asthma attack. Not a single visit to the ER. Nothing. She’s breathing so much better, and all it took was a global pandemic that completely upended normal life.