After Sunisa Lee won the Olympic gold medal in gymnastics, a reporter (Perry Russom) from NBC10 in Boston emailed me to ask if I would give a little background about Hmong people, given her importance to Hmong-Americans in Massachusetts and around the country. It was a pleasant conversation and he asked good questions about Hmong history. We spoke for maybe 15 minutes. The video below was the result.
The clip is fine. Obviously, not everything we talked about would make it into the final edited version. That’s not how television works. And the focus was where it should be — on Suni Lee’s remarkable achievement and what she means to Hmong people, who have long been overlooked in this country.
I have had Hmong friends tell me that white Americans often tried to guess their ethnicity (without being asked to). One friend would make the person keep guessing until they had exhausted their knowledge of Asian identities (“are you Chinese?” No. “Japanese?” No. “Filipino?” No.) before they gave up. You can see how that might be problematic, and annoying. Yet it was sometimes also a clumsy opportunity for learning. Finally, my patient friend would reply, “I am Hmong,” and then give a quick summary of how they came to be in the United States. Many Hmong people have had similar conversations. I distinctly remember another Hmong friend in college angrily telling me “white people don’t know fucking shit about us! Even though we fought alongside you!” He is one of the reasons I ended up doing my PhD research with the Hmong. Given that brief background, it isn’t hard to see why Suni Lee would mean so much to Hmong people around the country, and probably the world. I am so happy for all of them.
There is one sentiment I expressed to the reporter that I wished had made it into the final clip. I said something to the effect that we should remember that Suni Lee is the daughter of refugees. Only a generation ago, her family was forcibly displaced from their homes because of the effects of the war. And here she is now, an Olympic champion, admired by so many people in this country (Hmong and non-Hmong alike). I said that she is a reminder of all the human potential of refugees around the world.
I didn’t say this part in the interview, but historically, refugees have not always been welcomed by other countries, including here. A poll from 1979 shows that among the American public, support for accepting refugees from Southeast Asia was only 32%, with 57% disapproving. American attitudes toward other refugee groups have been similar over time. Had Suni Lee’s family not been allowed to come to the US, it would have been our loss.
Of course, not every refugee will become an Olympic gold medalist, and obviously most will not. By definition, Olympians are exceptional. But refugees shouldn’t have to be exceptional for us to see their worth or basic human dignity. All people have the right to seek asylum from persecution. Under the Trump administration, the number of refugees accepted by the US dropped each year, with the 2021 cap set at just 15,000 people, a record low figure. This is despite the fact that the number of displaced people (international refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers) is higher than its ever been, at over 80 million people. Alone, no country can accept every refugee in the world. But Suni Lee is a reminder that extending compassion to vulnerable people is not only the ethical thing to do. It can sometimes even bear golden fruit.