Young and Hmong in America

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.