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Why Suni Lee’s Olympic Gold Is a Win for Her Whole Hmong American Community

In this op-ed, Jessica Goudeau speaks to Hmong Americans about Suni Lee’s Olympic gold, and what lessons we can learn about individualism versus community.

When Chef Yia Vang saw footage of the rickety balance beam that Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee’s father built for her when she was young, he laughed: “That’s so Hmong.” 

Like Lee’s family, Vang, founder of Union Hmong Kitchen, is part of the Hmong American community in St. Paul, Minnesota. The balance beam felt representative to Vang because it demonstrated Lee’s unwavering support for his daughter. It also showed the scrappiness that he remembers from his own childhood; when he and his family first moved to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand, his dad used the same kind of woodworking skills to make “swords or guns for us so we could have something to play with in the backyard.” But mostly, it underscored Lee’s resilience, which Vang defines as a quality Hmong people have had to show for generations: “No matter how hard things are, we push forward. That’s grit, true grit. Suni embodies that never-give-up spirit.”

When Suni Lee won the all-around gold medal last week in Tokyo, beating Brazilian rival Rebeca Andrade by just over a tenth of a point, she became the first Asian-American to win gold in all-around gymnastics for the U.S. at the Olympics. It was also a historic win for Hmong people. For Steve Thao, executive director of the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent in St. Paul, it was “one of the great milestones of Hmong history.”

He cites the community’s closeness because of their shared history: “We were persecuted in China and Laos, and we came here as refugees, so we’re really connected.” Many Hmong Americans came to Minnesota as refugees in the 1970s, following the Vietnam War. But they had been displaced long before the war; Vang said the word ‘Hmong’ “literally means we don’t have a land of our own; the word translates to ‘free, or people of the free.’” The Hmong people, a discrete ethnic and cultural group, lived for centuries in China, but conflicts with Imperial China beginning in the 1700s forced them to flee to countries in Southeast Asia, including Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

The United States has a particularly shameful past in relation to Hmong people; during the Vietnam War, the CIA fought a secret war in Laos, recruiting and training Hmong people to fight against Communist troops in Northern Vietnam. This included creating and arming child soldiers. At the end of the Vietnam War, the CIA left the country, abandoning tens of thousands of Hmong people.

Minnesota State Senator Fue Lee calls the secret war in Laos and the history of U.S. relations with Hmong people “the story that isn’t being told.” He says the Hmong people who arrived in the U.S. in the 1970s didn’t come because “we wanted to game the system.” Instead, “we had to flee for our lives.” He hopes that “Suni’s story will shed light on the story of many countless individuals who made sacrifices for us to come here as refugees.”

The last few years have been especially complicated for the Hmong community in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The death of George Floyd and the resulting racial tension in the region, as well as a spike in attacks on Asian-Americans alongside political rhetoric that blamed COVID-19 on people from Asia, has deeply impacted the community.

Alicia Thoj, the Community Engagement Director at RiverLife Church, which focuses on second and third generation Hmong people in St. Paul, said “a Hmong person will experience discrimination on a daily or weekly basis. It’s been challenging because there are so many different levels of racism.” But she also says that, while discrimination against Asian-American people is growing, so is support: “There’s a gathering of people who come around us and say, ‘We see you, we hear you, we’re with you.’”

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