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 hello@theatlantic.com to share your own experience as a member of, or neighbor to, the Hmong community.

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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?

The first note in our discussion on Hmong Americans focused on the cultural and racial tensions between immigrants and long-time locals in Midwestern cities such as Minneapolis and West Coast cities such as Fresno—the two biggest epicenters of Hmong Americans. This next reader, Bee Vang, grew up in both areas and is now entering adulthood with the wind at his back:

I would have said it was an impossibility: Children of refugees don’t give commencement speeches at Ivy League schools in America. Yet there I was, born in Fresno, raised in Minnesota, educated at Brown University, and stepping up to the podium as one of the speakers for mid-year graduation, 2016. My heart was in my throat, but no one could tell. In that moment my voice was kept strong by my mission—to make Hmong proud, to show through the power of my oration that we can go anywhere and excel, and that there is a lot for my fellow graduates to think about in our world marred by war and destruction.

The commencement committee had asked us to be light and inspiring. Talking about my track record, complimenting the other graduates on theirs, and throwing in lots of jokes, I sought to be maximally inspiring—but I insisted on keeping the history of bombing in as well. Not much of Hmong American history is light ...

I asked Vang if there’s a YouTube version of his commencement speech and there is—embedded above (a text version is here). Another reader, Pao Lee Vue, a professor at St. John Fisher College, recalls a distressing experience he had with Vang and some other students:

I thought Doualy’s Atlantic article was excellent, but I want to share another perspective. As an idealistic PhD student in Sociology, I made it a point to learn as much as I could about U.S. race relations as it pertains to crime and law enforcement, immigration, and assimilation. Committed to social justice, I also trained in how race intersected with other hierarchies, especially gender and social class. As I pursued field research on Hmong youth in the Upper Midwest, I became more and more convinced that Hmong were uniquely racialized both as Asian Americans, but also symbolically closer to blackness than their East Asian counterparts. I designed my book to convince readers of this.

Then I got up in front of the college classroom and had a whole new education.