January 30, 31 readings: : Chia Youyee Vang on Hmong in Minnesota


Chia Youyee Vang, Ph.D. a Twin Cities raised Hmong woman is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, has authored “Hmong in Minnesota,” the latest of the People of Minnesota Series of books published by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Dr. Vang will be in Minnesota for two book-signing and discussion events this week. She will be at the St. Paul Rondo Community Library. 461 North Dale Street, St. Paul on January 30. 7:00 p.m. She will be at the Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mail, Minneapolis on January 31 at 7:00 p.m.

Hmong in Minnesota, The People of Minnesota Series, Minnesota Historical Society Press, $13.95 paperback, www.mhspress.org.

Both are free and open to the public, but reservations are required for the Minneapolis event. Call 612-630-6155 go online at friendsofmpl.org.

The book details the Hmong refugees experience from the 1970s to the present, and the people who helped along the way. The successes emerged from a difficult adjustment to American culture by a people with time-held traditions as an agrarian people.

AAP: How did it come to be that you were selected to write this Hmong Minnesota history?

Vang: Perhaps “being ready, in the right place at the right time” best describes how this book came to be. In May 2005, I presented a paper titled, “Rebuilding Community, Restructuring Lives: A Historical Analysis of Hmong Refugee Resettlement in Minnesota” at the “Immigration History and the University of Minnesota: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going” Conference at the Immigration History Research Center/University of Minnesota. Then editor of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, Debbie Miller, approached me after my presentation. She informed me that the Press had been interested in publishing a book on the history of Hmong migration to Minnesota as part of its series, The People of Minnesota. She indicated that she knew creative writers in the Hmong American community, but that the Press was interested in someone who could write a history book. When I shared with her the contents of my dissertation project, she informed me that I was the perfect person to write about Hmong history in Minnesota. A few weeks later she contacted me and before I knew it, I was under contract to write the book. I was thrilled and honored to be given such an important task. There are many professionals in the Hmong American community in Minnesota who the Press could have chosen, but I think it was important to have a scholar engage in such an activity. I was near completion of my Ph.D. degree. Additionally, I think it helped a great deal that until August 2006 when I was recruited for a tenure track history position at the University of WI-Milwaukee, Minnesota had been more home to me than any other place. Unlike many Hmong American professionals who grew up and were educated elsewhere who move to Minnesota to take part in the lively Hmong community in this state, I grew up in St. Paul, completed my undergraduate studies in St. Peter and graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, and worked for nearly a decade as a professional research and evaluation consultant. Thus, I’ve witnessed transformations in the Hmong community through many lenses. This project is definitely from the “inside”.

How important is a book like this to the Hmong people, and to the non-Hmong people? Is it the same?

This book is important in many ways for both Hmong and non-Hmong people. In some ways its importance is similar, but in others ways, the book will surely mean something different for various audiences. I think it’s difficult to categorize its importance based on a Hmong/non-Hmong dichotomy. I will explain what I mean. First, I think for most Minnesotans, this may be one of the few, if not the only, opportunity for them to get a broad, comprehensive overview of Hmong resettlement history and its cultural changes since the first arrivals in the mid 1970s. Second, non-Hmong Minnesotans who were not involved in refugee resettlement may be surprised at the significant the level of investment the state and their neighbors made in resettling Hmong and other Southeast Asian refugees. Third, non-Hmong Minnesotans who were intimately involved in the resettlement process will probably realize how important of a role they played in helping Hmong to rebuild their lives at the same time that some may even be surprised at how the Hmong themselves created ways to support each other that were beyond what sponsors and/or supporters could imagine. Fourth, the Hmong immigrant generation will hopefully be pleased that aspects of their journey to the U.S and in Minnesota will not be forgotten. Clearly, there are many more stories than the ones included in this book, but at least now there is a book that will preserve their lived experiences for generations to come. Finally, young Hmong Americans may appreciate being able to learn about their parents’ and grandparents’ immigration experiences. As they learn about these experiences, they will hopefully better understand how the Hmong fit into the larger American immigration history. I also hope that young Hmong Americans will be proud of what their parents and grandparents have accomplished during the last three decades.

How difficult was it to take something as vast, unwritten, “flexible and evolving” as the Hmong culture and put the several segments into this very concise book?

When I accepted the contract to write this book in summer 2005, I was provided with copies of all of the books in the series. To tell you the truth, my initial thoughts were, “Well, the Poles have 150 years of history to write. How difficult can 30 years of Hmong history be?” As I began to write, I did struggle with choosing the “right” contents. It became easier when I convinced myself that it was not going to be possible to cover every aspect of the dynamic Hmong culture. One of the questions I posed in my mind consistently as I made decisions on what to include/exclude was, “One hundred years from now, what is it about the first three decades of Hmong life in Minnesota that I would want my grand children and great grandchildren to understand?”

How did you come to decide what to include or exclude? Was there some sort of committee or did you have people to offer feedback? (I should validate that by saying that the extent and depth that could have been included – versus what was included may have been different depending on who wrote this work).

I had conducted extensive archival research on the politics of refugee resettlement both in MN and at the national and international level, so it was clear that some historical context on why Hmong came to MN was important. No committee existed to help decide on content area. However, the Press had guidelines on this series. Reading the other books helped guide me in choosing the topics. Also, as I conducted the 22 oral history interviews. I frequently used the opportunity to ask them the question, “One hundred years from now, what is it about the first three decades of Hmong life in Minnesota that you would want your grand children and great grandchildren to understand?” To some degree, their responses helped highlight certain issues. Clearly, a different author with a different life experience and expertise will emphasize certain topics over others. The kinds of questions one asks and the approach one takes in gathering information to answer them will surely shape the end product.

A historical work like this has the obvious names, dates, first this and that; but, how did you go about giving this book the heart it needed to present the Hmong as a good and proud people rather than just the statistics and organizations?

I have lived and worked in the Twin Cities community long enough to have a fairly in-depth understanding of Hmong American community politics, so I have tried as best as I could to include a variety of topics and highlight different people in the community. To tell you the truth, as someone previous trained in public policy, it is tempting to merely discuss statistics and organizations. While they are instrumental in painting a picture of any community, I don’t believe that they should always be the most important. It’s easy for most people to cite statistics, but I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to talk about how people made decisions, how they felt, and what did various experiences mean to them. I believe that there is (and has been) too much emphasis on problems in the Hmong community. My goal was not to ignore them, but to show that parallel to the many negative things that Hmong Americans have faced, they have worked diligently to make sense of their lives in the U.S.

Is the book that was published what you intended? Or was there editing on your part or others to comply with some sort of gestault for the Minnesota History Center history series?

The series, The People of Minnesota, had guidelines and suggestions, so clearly I worked within those guidelines. One of the tasks was to write for a broad, general audience, so I omitted a lot of academic jargon. As with any published work, however, the manuscript went through several stages. I completed the first draft in late summer 2006. My editor read it and then provided feedback as well as asked for clarification on some components. After a couple more revisions, then it went to an outside reviewer. After that, I made one more final revision. I am very pleased with how the book turned out, but I would have to honestly say that writing the book was truly an evolving process. I can’t say that at the time when I first accepted the opportunity to write the book, I imagined it to be exactly as it turned out.

It seemed you were careful about the controversy but mentioned it here and there (separate new year events in several cities). How did you know where it was necessary to discuss the challenges and difficulties?

The story of any immigrant to America has involved both positive and negative experiences. My goal was to illustrate the various ways in which Hmong refugees/Americans have made Minnesota home, at the same time to show that in the process of reconstructing their new lives in America, they have not been immune to challenges, be it within their ethnic group or in the larger community, as they define and redefine who they are and where they see themselves in American society. I was intentional in bringing up controversial issues because they are important in creating a more authentic, if I may, view of the Hmong community. However, this project was not intended as a social science study to examine problems in the Minnesota Hmong community.

How have the Hmong been transformed by Minnesota, and have transformed Minnesota in your words?

The Hmong experience in Minnesota is unique in many ways. Although it was initially the people of Minnesota (resettlement agencies such as the International Institute of Minnesota and many in the faith-based community who provided sponsorship) who invited the first refugees here, it was the Hmong people themselves who reached out to their friends and relatives in other states and encouraged them to relocate to Minnesota. As the community grew, it enabled businesses to thrive as well as allowed the population to have greater voice in the mainstream community. I believe the political environment in Minnesota, specifically the Twin Cities metropolitan area, has been instrumental in enabling them to make the kinds of progress they have been able to. Because they are so heavily concentrated in the metro area, I do not think Hmong have had much opportunity in greater Minnesota. There are, of course, small settlements such as in Walnut Grove, Marshall, and Tracy where their presence is felt in a number of sectors. For example, the arrival of Hmong families with children in the school system meant that some teachers have jobs partially due to new immigrants. I think the most visible example of how Hmong have transformed Minnesota is in the metro area, in particular St. Paul and Minneapolis. The obvious examples are schools with high percentage of Hmong American children, Hmong and other Asian businesses that cater largely to the Hmong community, large cultural/community gatherings, and of course, the unprecedented political participation in Minnesota politics.

What else have you published? Do you expect a similar work for Wisconsin?

I have published a number of community reports on immigrants and refugees, not necessarily just on Hmong. They are:

Vang, Chia Youyee, “Families, Friends and Neighbor Child Care Providers in Recent Immigrant and Refugee Communities,” Minnesota Department of Human Services/Child Development Services (www.dhs.state.mn.us/main/groups/children/documents/pub/DHS), February 2006.

Vang, Chia Youyee, Stella SiWan Cheung, Mary Ellen Murphy and Vanessa McKendall-Stephens, “Preschool Literacy Development: Opportunities and Challenges for Hmong Children in WORDS WORK!,” (Southeast Asia Resource and Action Center/Harvard Civil Rights Project: Washington, D.C.). (www.searac.org/savepapers2006.html)

Vang, Chia Youyee. Book Review of The Lao: Gender, Power, and Livelihood, by Carol Ireson-Doolittle and Geraldine Moreno-Black. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004). Contemporary Soiology 34:1, pp. 28-30, December 2004.

Vang, Chia Youyee. 2004. “Historical Sketch of the Refugee Studies Center,” (Immigration History Research Center (IHRC)-University of Minnesota), www.ihrc.umn.edu/research/guide/RSC/ihrc2968.html

Vang, Chia Youyee, “Contested Economic Growth among Hmong Americans,” in Hmong 2000 Census Publication: Data and Analysis (Hmong National Development and Hmong Cultural and Resource Center, 2004), pp.29-31.

Vang, Chia Youyee, “Attending to Human Details,” Book Review of Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America (2003), by Aiwha Ong ( H-Net, January 2004).

Vang, Chia Youyee, Language Acquisition and Acculturation Efforts for Immigrants and Refugees in Minnesota (The McKnight Foundation, 2003) (available at www.mcknight.org/cfc/lab.aspx)

I do not expect to work on a similar project for Wisconsin in the near future. However, I have received an Institute on Race and Ethnicity Faculty Diversity Award from the University of Wisconsin System to be on leave during all of spring 2008 semester to turn my dissertation into a book. The working title is “The Hmong in America: Migration, Settlement and the Politics of Home”. Two university presses are interested in publishing it. I hope to complete the revisions by June 2008. Unlike Hmong in Minnesota, this new book will be geared toward an academic audience and thus will be much more analytical.

Does the hmong experience in Minnesota differ greatly from that of Wisconsin?

Chain migration processes, whether it be to be near family and kin or job/business opportunities, is similar in both states. The most significant difference between the two states is that while initially dispersed in various parts of Minnesota, the Minnesota Hmong community is heavily concentrated in the Twin Cities metropolitan area whereas Hmong presence is felt in all corners of the state of Wisconsin. The critical mass in the Twin Cities is a key factor contributing to the success of Hmong Americans in various sectors.

Were you aware of Bill Holm’s forward before it was published? What did you think of that?

I had read the other books in the series before writing my book, so yes, I was aware of the forward. I appreciated it greatly. What the forward does is encourage readers to realize that while all of us may have come to Minnesota for different reasons and under different circumstances, we have much in common. Third or fourth generation Minnesotans may find the new immigrants strange in all of their ethnic ways, but if they take the time to learn a little about their parents’ and grandparents’ ways, the strangeness of their new neighbors are but a part of the American immigration experience.

How did it come to be that Mao Heu Thao was chosen for a contribution at the end of the book? How is this piece important to give flavor or meaning to the rest of the work?

I had interviewed many people in my professional career prior to writing this book and then interviewed 22 people for my dissertation. This book is a snapshot of larger ideas and theories in the larger project. It is mostly descriptive. Other books in the series include a personal account. Some are similar to Mao’s while others are historical documents, such as a letter. It was very difficult to choose from the list of people I interviewed. Any other interviewee’s account would have been good for this section, but I chose Mao’s story because of the way she described her anxiety about the journey from Ban Vinai refugee camp to La Crescent and the details about her first few days. I think her story is representative of the first arrivals to Minnesota.

Who else do you thank in putting this book together?

Former MHS press editor, Debbie Miller, for initially approaching me in spring 2005.