Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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 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.

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: