Reporter's Notebook

Being Hmong in America
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Hmong American readers share their stories of immigrating to and living in the United States. Drop us a note at to share your own experience as a member of, or neighbor to, the Hmong community.

Show 1 Newer Notes

The Midwest as a 'Hmong Queer San Francisco'

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?

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: