Sunisa Lee, the first Hmong American Olympian in history, brought home all three Olympic medals in women’s gymnastics from Tokyo: bronze in uneven bars, silver in teams and gold in the individual all-around.
How do we move forward in teaching Hmong history — even American history — now that Suni is intimately included in it? I teach a course at UW-Eau Claire every semester called “Hmong American Experiences in the U.S.” Every period, I ask my students to open our class with a news article on Hmong Americans and contextualize on why the article is important to Hmong Americans.
Back in 2019, one student reported a story that called Suni just an “Olympic hopeful.” My student wrote in their report why this story was important: “This article is significant because if Sunisa achieves her Olympic goal, she will be the first Hmong American gymnast to compete. In addition to that, it just gives Hmong communities the attention they deserve. She will help introduce Hmong history and culture to (the) world.”
I teach the story of Hmong migration to the United States, highlighting how the U.S. used Hmong people as proxy soldiers in its secret war in Laos and then subsequently abandoned us when it was finished with us. The lucky Hmong political refugees who were resettled in the U.S. afterwards were spread across the country so that our cultures would disappear, and we could assimilate quickly into the receiving communities.
Suni’s achievements reveal how intentional history really is. History is not random. It is a series of acts that are placed together to create a sequence of developing events. In the case of Hmong Americans, the U.S. government intentionally hid the war in Laos from the American public and purposefully tried to destroy our communities during resettlement. Our histories were intentionally redacted from the records and from school curriculums. Hmong people recognized this, and we fought back. We moved our communities together through secondary migration and formed ethnic enclaves to heal the fractures caused by the war and by resettlement. Our parents used their nightmares as a catalyst to foster the dreams of the youth.
Hmong Americans comprise less than one percent of the total U.S. population. Yet, our excellence has baffled scholars and political analysts. How can such a small population who originally entered as refugees to the U.S. become so successful? Yet, if we know anything about Hmong history, we will not be surprised at all by Suni’s accomplishments. Hmong history proves time and time again that it is not the size of the population that matters, but the will of a people to shatter the barriers in front of them that truly counts.
Teaching Hmong history during our racist political climate makes Suni’s accomplishments even more significant. Suni represented the U.S. during a global pandemic as a Hmong American and Asian American woman. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen exponentially since the start of the pandemic. Asian and Asian American women have even been murdered during the pandemic.
I, myself, was targeted with a hate note in my campus office advocating for the deportation of Hmong people. As a part of the larger Asian American racial group, we have been made to feel like we do not belong. We are made to feel like we are not Americans. Yet, Asian American history itself calls into question what it means to represent the U.S. at this moment in time. Suni is now fundamentally a part of that conversation.
Hmong Americans have faced a host of difficulties and perils in the U.S. because our histories are unknown to the larger public. We also live in a world where representation matters. Hmong Americans have a historically fraught relationship with visibility in the U.S., mainly in part because others have told our story for us. Suni is telling her own story. Her achievements demonstrate that we must keep teaching Hmong studies in our schools in order to highlight our place in American history, a history that is indeed still unfolding. Suni made me proud to be a Hmong American. Most importantly, Suni made history.
Kong Pheng Pha is an assistant professor at UW-Eau Claire, where he teaches courses in Hmong history, women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and social justice.