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.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the University of California at Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored.
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
China warned Italy. Italy warned us. We didn’t listen. Now the onus is on the rest of America to listen to New York.
In the emergency-department waiting room, 150 people worry about a fever. Some just want a test, others badly need medical treatment. Those not at the brink of death have to wait six, eight, 10 hours before they can see a doctor. Those admitted to the hospital might wait a full day for a bed.
I am an emergency-medicine doctor who practices in both Manhattan and Queens; at the moment, I’m in Queens. Normally, I love coming to work here, even though in the best of times, my co-residents and I take care of one of New York City’s most vulnerable, underinsured patient populations. Many have underlying illnesses and a language barrier, and lack primary care.
“The thought of simply breathing in and out without coughing and reuniting with my children ... is goal enough. To—literally—live and let live will be enough.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment I started feeling off. My partner, Will, and I were on a bike ride on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 18, to escape our apartment and get some exercise. This was back when leaving a New York City apartment to get some exercise was still okay, or at least that’s what we’d read, or at least that’s what we thought? If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that what is considered dogma today might change tomorrow.
Ten minutes into our bike ride, I was overcome by an intense fatigue. “I think I have to go back,” I said.
Back home, I felt chilled. Took my temperature: 99.1. I’m normally 97.1, but still, not a huge deal. We’d been so careful about wiping down doorknobs, washing our hands, and keeping everyone except for our family out of our apartment. I’d been ambiently worried enough that my 13-year-old son could be a silent carrier of the virus that I’d yanked him out of his public middle school and off the crowded subways four days before Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled the plug– (far too belatedly, in my opinion). I was getting over a urinary-tract infection, so my fever, I thought, must be from that.
The government is showing how not to handle a pandemic.
By now, the global timeline of the coronavirus’s development has been well established: The first case reportedly appeared in mid-November; in December, the Chinese government was still attributing hospitalizations to a peculiar form of pneumonia; through January and February, the outbreak began spreading around the world; and its epicenter is today firmly in Europe and the United States.
Throughout, another set of events were occurring here in India. Late last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government introduced and passed a controversial new law, ostensibly in support of minorities in neighboring countries, that in fact openly discriminated against Muslims and undermined India’s secular foundations. Then, early this year, protests over that new law snowballed into a pogrom in which dozens of people—mostly Muslims—have been killed.
Hospitals are poised to face the kind of life-and-death decisions that industrialized countries typically encounter only in times of war and natural disaster.
Two weeks ago, a man came to an emergency room in New York with pain in the lower-right quadrant of his abdomen. A CT scan showed inflammation around a fingerlike projection at the base of his colon. Combined with a fever, this was a classic case of appendicitis. Surgeons took the man to the operating room and removed his appendix.
The next day, recovering upstairs, the man still had a fever. Doctors ordered a test for the coronavirus. A day later, his results came back positive.
Under usual circumstances, a person with a dangerous, infectious respiratory disease such as COVID-19 requires special precautions in a hospital. Everyone who enters the patient’s room—even to ask how they’re doing or to pick up a lunch tray—is required to don a fresh gown, gloves, and a mask. If the worker must get in close contact with the patient, the mask has to be an N95 respirator, and a face shield is required to guard the eyes. Without exception, every piece of this gear must be discarded in a biohazard dispenser upon leaving the room. An errant mask or glove or gown, coated in virus, can become lethal.
You live in a cramped apartment and you’re scared. But escape is selfish.
Hello fellow New Yorkers. You want to leave. So badly. I know. Me too. But don’t. Don’t do it.
It is absurd at this point that it’s even your choice. The bridges should be closed to all but essential traffic. The airports should be shuttered. Instead, Hertz is still renting cars at its 17 Manhattan locations, AirBnB is listing “Corona free” homes in New Jersey, and airlines are offering (apocalyptically cheap) tickets from all three New York airports to Anywhere But Here.
I know all that because I spent one morning this week Googling a dozen possible escapes, in a moment of claustrophobia and panic. I share 900 square feet with two kids and a dog. My wife is a physician who is still seeing patients. And even though I trust her precautions and protocols, I can’t shake the feeling of dread. Mixed in with the uncertainty is the certainty that everything is going to get much, much worse, as the cases spike and people I love or know or admire begin to die. My impulse is to do something—to move, to flee. I’m sure virtually everyone else in the city feels the same way.
The coronavirus is making me experience what Germans poetically call heimweh, the hurt of being far from your native land.
In times of upheaval or natural catastrophe, the State Department often advises Americans to avoid some of the world’s poorest nations. When ISIS took over large parts of Syria and Mali descended into civil war, the federal government implored Americans not to go to those countries. One of the pieces of advice it offers to those who insist on visiting them anyway is rather blunt: “Draft a will.”
These warnings speak to a set of assumptions so obvious, they seem almost silly to spell out. America is a rich and stable country. So long as U.S. citizens stay home—or restrict their travel to other developed nations—they are likely to remain safe. Travel warnings tend to flow from north to south, rich to poor, democracy to dictatorship.
With the country’s attention turned north, the coronavirus pandemic is exploding in Louisiana.
Between the time this sentence was written and the time this article is published, hundreds more Americans will likely have died from COVID-19. Hundreds or perhaps thousands more people will have been hospitalized, and certainly tens of thousands more will have tested positive for the coronavirus. At this point, making predictions about the pandemic is like riding a barrel over Niagara Falls: We can only guess how it ends, but we do know things are going down.
Here’s another prediction that’s safe to make: The city of New Orleans—and, potentially, all of Louisiana—is going to become the next front in the fight against the pandemic. Even as national attention is justifiably focused on the aggressive outbreak in Washington State and the mounting pressures on New York City’s hospitals, the virus’s advance in Louisiana has shaken local officials and doctors, and the state is already approaching a similar burden of infections and deaths as the crises to the north. There’s good reason to believe that this southern outbreak will be even more difficult to contain, and is perhaps a better harbinger of what’s to come as the pandemic spreads across the country.