The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were historic for many communities and for the world, but especially so for Hmong Americans who not only made history but also opened the doors for a new chapter in their bittersweet history.
Minnesota-born Sunisa Lee became the first Hmong American Olympic gold medalist when she placed first in gymnastics. Her entire community celebrated her victory.
Having originated in China, the Hmong people are also present in Southeast Asian countries like Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Their history in the U.S. began after the country’s war with Vietnam.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the CIA recruited the Hmongs to act against North Vietnam and the communist organization Pathet Lao. In what is known as the Secret War, the Hmong helped rescue American soldiers, protecting U.S. stations, and providing intelligence about enemy operations.
Between 30,000 and 40,000 Hmong soldiers died in the war, although the biggest Hmong casualty was civilians since 50,000 Hmong civilians were killed or injured, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
As war destroyed their homes and resources, Hmong soldiers and their families depended on the U.S. for survival, with the latter providing food. After the war’s cease-fire in 1973, the U.S. stopped the support programs and 120,000 Hmongs became refugees.
Hmong were persecuted when the war ended, with many put into concentration camps, others subjected to chemical weapons and bombs. Around 10% of the Hmong population in Laos died as a result, according to the Hmong American Center. Those who could escape lived in refugee camps for years. Most Hmongs wouldn’t resettle until after 1980, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Hmong scholar and researcher Dr. Brian V. Xiong was 10 years old when he came to the U.S. with his family, “I was born in a refugee camp and came here when I was a child. So my family came here in 1993, straight to Minnesota.”
A significant part of the American Hmong community came to the U.S. as political refugees as a result of this. Today, there are also Hmong communities in Europe and Canada.
Dr. Xiong describes himself as the “1.5” generation because he experienced life in another country, but grew up in the US. “You always feel like you have this culture clash. You don’t know where you belong. And because you’re in a country where sometimes they don’t talk about you, you don’t feel like you’re part of this.”
Most of the Hmong community in the U.S. are located in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin. In 2019, there were around 330,000 Hmongs in the US, according to the Pew Research Center. However, Director of the Hmong Cultural Center of Butte County. Seng S. Yang believes that there are around half a million in the US. He believes that the Hmong are undercounted in the U.S. because many (especially the elderly) cannot read or write and thus struggle to answer the census and surveys. In the cultural center, Seng provides social servicing, communication, and outreach to the Hmong and Southeast Asian communities.
The education attainment of the Hmong population in the U.S. has been growing. In 2019, 31% of US-born Hmong people only completed high school or less, compared to those born in other countries who had a rate of 57%, according to the Pew Research Center.
The Hmong have been successful in integrating into U.S. society, although that doesn’t mean they are always represented.
“I remember watching a lot of TV shows, mostly nothing related to Asians or particularly Hmong,” said Dr. Xiong. “And then watching the Olympics, through middle school, high school, and I always feel like I wasn’t part American. Because the people who compete for the country America, they don’t identify or they don’t look like me.”
But this was before Sunisa’s historic win.
“You just never feel that you’re part of the community. And here, you hear Sunisa won the gold medal for our country,” said Dr. Xiong. “It made me so proud. Honestly, I had to tell you when I saw it, and when she (got) to the podium, and they gave her the gold medal, I cried. I cried. Because (it is) not only the first time that you have a Hmong in Asia, who won the gold medal in gymnastics, but at the same time, you also let people know that we are Hmong Americans. We are here in St. Paul, Minnesota, we have no country to go to. This is our country.”
The pride in the community is present.
In Sunisa’s hometown, the Hmong Archives have been working on gathering and preserving news articles about Sunisa’s historic medal and journey. Marlin L. Heise is a board member of the Hmong Archives, where he volunteers as an archivist, preserving Hmong-related texts.
“We will be collecting, keeping the front pages and parts of the sports section for permanent (use) in our newspaper collections,” said Heise, who has already gathered articles and clips from different places over the world.
“To read about her, to see those photos…that is kind of, for me, very impressive,” said Heise. “And so to see Sunisa in photographs, I don’t know how we are going to be able to present them, some time, someplace is just wonderful.”
The Hmong Archives are not the only ones that are proud. Over the last few weeks, videos of Sunisa’s Lee family and friends reacting to her medal went viral.
“Hmong, we are pretty lucky that we have her representing the U.S. and gymnastic team to win the gold medal,” said Seng. “Now (it’s) known to the world there is Hmong all over the world.”
There are Hmong state senators and state representatives in Minnesota and in California, as well as a mayor. But according to Seng, “Suni is the one that will (take) the Hmong to the front page for the world.”
According to Seng, Sunisa Lee winning a gold Olympic medal, “reached out to the world that there is Hmong on Earth.”