Sunisa Lee, the Hmong, & the Dignity of Refugees

Sunisa Lee. Photo by Danielle Parhizkaran/USA TODAY Sports

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.

5 thoughts on “Sunisa Lee, the Hmong, & the Dignity of Refugees

  1. Hi Patrick. Thanks for informing me. I had no idea a Hmong-American had won a gold medal for America — and I’ve been living permanently in Laos for over 21 years. We get CNN and can see the Olympics, but there has been no comment on ethnicity of winners. Nationality, of course, but ethnicity? No.

    Well done Sunni — that name could be ethnic Hmong, although I’ve never heard it as such, or, more frequently, ethnic Lao (Lao Loum).. But an Olympic medal by any other name….

    It set me to wondering if its a good thing that a person’s ethnicity is publlicised. I’m not sure.

    America id different to most countries on that score and I am not American — but that does not stop me commenting (after all, I am an anthropologist and anthropologists usually comment about ‘others’ outside their own ethnic group — as you have done.)

    I am of course aware that America is made up of Irish=Americans, Italian-Americans and so on ad infinitum. France is not made up (publicly) of Senagalese-French, Hmong French (there are some), Lao-French etc. The UK not only does not emphasis ethnicity, it would not be done to distinguish Romany-British, Zulu-British, or any of the many ‘Indian British’. It’s okay to say Hong Kong-British, but only if somebody holds a Hong-Kong British passport. This is not to say that inter-ethnic relations in the UK or France (or Australia, etc) are much better than in the US (although they could hardly be worse).

    I meet a lot of Hmong-Americans who visit Laos (pre-Covid). They see themselves as Americans — even if they can communicate in Hmong or Lao — and they are. American. Born in America, they are 100% American.

    Permit me to point out that as Hmong in Laos (some 7% of the population) see themselves increasingly as Lao — very few were born during the old regime — many/some Hmong in America still come out with silly statement like ‘We fought alongside you’ (said, I bet by somebody who has never had a fight in his life — at least not one outside America).

    There is absolutely no reason not to maintain Hmong language and culture in America — if individuals wish to do so. But it would be nice if they learnt a balanced history of their own ethnicity. Hmong fought on both sides in the (almost forgotten in Laos) civil war. One of the four national heroes of the revolution was Hmong (Fay-dang Lo) and his descendant (Madame Pany Lobliayao) is President of the National Assembly and in the top current political leadership (Politburo — currently 11 people). Hmong in Laos go to school in Lao language, as do the Khmu, Akha, Phuan, Thaidam, etc etc. They are Lao. I have no idea of the ethnicity of the members of the tiny group of Lao currently competing in the Olympics — but if any won a medal. they would not be lauded as ‘Thaikhao’ or whatever their ethnicity, but as Lao.

    I simply point out the great difference between America and most of the world when it comes to labeling ethnic origins rather than or in addition to national identity. Given that the US has perhaps the worst record in the world when it comes to inter-ethnic integration, it might be worth considering how far ethnic labels should be maintained and lauded (or disparaged) in a multi-ethnic state.

    • Hi Robert,

      You’re right to point out the quirks of American emphasis on ethnicity. It’s a common story here that people in the US, particularly those whose families have been here for a few generations or less, often describe themselves as hyphenated Americans. But once they travel abroad that context is lost and they describe themselves as American. Here, Irish-Americans often describe themselves as “Irish” though they quickly realize that doesn’t go over well when visiting Ireland. I guess we all have multiple identities that fluctuate with context.

      As far as Sunisa Lee goes, her parents named her after a Thai soap opera actress (I know nothing about Thai television). Another part that didn’t make the TV clip was that I mentioned to the reporter that Sunisa was as American as anyone else, trying to strike a balance between inclusivity and the uniqueness of Hmong identity. That balance is often at play here in the US, as people want to retain their inherited identities pay homage to their family histories, traditions, language, and ancestors (which undoubtedly influence us), while also integrating into the people around us. I don’t know what the formula is, or how to best manage the two. Maybe that’s a perennial question that humans constantly have to navigate. It’s true that there is often a price to be aid for over-emphasis on what makes us different over what we have in common.

      You’re also right that the history of the war was complex, with people fighting for various factions. I remember that the Hmong in French Guiana referred to their American counterparts as “Vang Pao Hmong” with a tinge of sarcasm, if my memory serves. It was implied that they were not quite as beholden to that faction of the war effort. To defend my friend, he was just an infant during the war. His father was a soldier, though. I think what he was getting at was that he felt invisible to white America despite the fact that his family had faced hardships on its behalf. I think that’s an understandable thing to be upset over.

      • Many thanks, Patrick. A very informed and informative reply. It suggests to me that, if it hasn’t been done already, there is great scope for a research project on ‘American’ ethnicity formation.

        Laos is also perpetually going through the process of integration. Grant Evans had a project underway involving Lao students interviewing Lao parents and children of ‘third generation’ Lao (what might be termed ‘Chinese Lao’ or ‘Viet-Lao’ if US use is applied). Unfortunately he died before project completion. I was able to see his collected but incomplete results. They suggested that school age children in a third ‘generation family identified as ‘ethnic Lao’ even if they spoke Vietnamese at home, while the parents of those children self-identified as Vietnamese, even if born in Laos.

        I do know two Khmou boys of the same age from the same village and related — cousins: one speaks both Lao and Khmou, the other speaks only Lao.

        Grant’s wife is ‘Phuan’ but recognises that ‘Phuan doesn’t exist any more’ so identifies as ethnic Lao. Much the same thing with the Thai-Dam: When I came here in 1980 there were two distinct Thai-Dam villages within Vientiane. Visiting them, the distinctions were obvious. Now neither exist and it is difficult to find a ‘Thai-Dam’ (admittedly, the Thai-Dam language was anyway a dialect of Lao). By contrast when working with remote Hmong for one year in Northern Vietnam, I found a Thai-Dam village within a cluster of 32 Green Hmong villages. I found that within a couple of weeks I could talk easily in Lao with the Thai-Dam on my large staff (mostly ethnic-Vietnamese and Hmong) — much to the chagrin of my Party minder! By dint of being quite different linguistically fro both Hmong and Vietnamese, they had retained intact their self-identity as Thai-Dam.

        This gets a bit far from the practice of ethnic labeling in the US. — excuse my anthropological wondering.

        Out of interest, there is a member of the current British Olympic team of Nigerian parentage and born in London. If she wins a medal and is referred in the UK media as ‘Nigerian-British’, somebody would be risking condemnation and possibly prosecution for racist hate-speech.

        Thus, I still don’t know if use of an ethnic adjective is mostly good or mostly bad. But my complexity won’t change the situation. At least in the US (and Laos) Hmong are referred to as Hmong and not Meo.

        And, a cheeky question: why are there no ‘English-Americans’ and ‘German-Americans’ when there are ‘Japanese-Americans’?

        • Thank you, Robert. I always learn a lot from your comments. I didn’t know that in the UK, there was an aversion to highlighting ethnicity in the hyphenated, American sense.

          I don’t know enough about all the ethnic groups in the US. I was surprised to learn years ago that German Americans (or at least Americans who claim German ancestry) are actually the biggest ethnic group in the country, because they are so inconspicuous. Other groups are much more “loud and proud” about their heritage. As I understand it, Germans made a conscious effort to downplay their heritage in WW1. So I guess it’s probably haphazard (historically particular) which groups retain a strong hyphenated ethnic identity here.

          • Agreed. Bit hard to think of German-origin Americans as an ‘ethnic group’ — but at the time of Independence I understand there were large parts of the then-existing country that used German language (including many Poles and Hungarians). In some places small groups of ‘Germans’ were called ‘Dutch’ — but because English-speakers mistook ‘Deutsche’ (my spellcheck by the way underlines that ans suggests ‘Dutch’!); Thus you have the Pennsylvania Dutch who speak Middle German. It was perhaps a matter of some luck that English rather than German became the national language. Plus of course the Declaration had to be understandable to those in England.

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