Mai Na Lee is a woman who can lay claim to a lot of firsts: She is the first female Hmong professor at the University of Minnesota, and the first Hmong person in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in history.
But for Lee, all those firsts are simply a part of a calling she couldn’t ignore: to study, record, and teach the history of the Hmong people. “I’m just a victim of that ‘first’ thing,” she said, laughing. “I don’t care about being the first, I care more about being the best.”
Lee is well on her way. She is a preeminent historian in the field of Southeast Asian history and teaches a groundbreaking Hmong history course at the University of Minnesota. Her pioneering work in Hmong history, trans-national identity and minority studies, once considered extremely marginal topics in history, have become what Lee calls “trendy.”
“What they call doing a ‘borderless history’ has become a priority. And of course, the Hmong fit right in, so suddenly my marginal topic is a hot topic,” she said.
It’s been a long journey for Lee to get from Laos, where she was born, to her current home in Woodbury, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
The story of how Lee, her parents and brothers ended up in the United States is part of what she calls the “massive dislocation of people to the West” that many Hmong refugees endured. Her father was a captain in General Vang Pao’s Special Guerilla Unit Army. When Pao left Laos, Lee’s family was forced to flee the Communists by escaping with about 400 other refugees into the jungle, where they remained from 1975 to 1978, often on the brink of starvation. She was just 6 at the time.
“We were eating essentially whatever we could find in the jungle,” Lee recalled. “My father still had his AK47 and M16 and some ammunition left and he used that to shoot animals. But when he was out of bullets, he said ‘OK, we’re going to surrender.'”
They surrendered and returned to their village in 1978. As a resistance leader, Lee’s father was a target for the occupying Communists, who had made Lee’s family home their headquarters. The family camped on the edge of the village, trying to stay under the Communist’s radar. They were eventually discovered, a tragic story that Lee has only recently been able to talk about.
“Our dog gave us away,” Lee said. The family pet, unable to make the journey, had returned to the family home, living with the occupying Communist soldiers. When Lee’s family returned to the village, the dog left to live with the family. The soldiers noticed and questioned Lee’s family; was that their dog? Was their father part of the resistance? Trying to trick the family, the soldiers asked that they sell them the dog so that they could eat it. Feeling they had no choice, they handed over their pet.
“And they ate it, they killed it,” Lee said sadly. “They killed it … and they made it into sausages. And to torment us psychologically, they brought it and they asked my mother to eat it. And my mother was on the verge of tears and said ‘No, we don’t eat dogs.’ But she made me and my brother take a bite because she was so scared that they would know that my father was the leader of the resistance. She said ‘If you don’t eat it, they’ll kill your father.’ I was only 8 or 9 and I remember my brother and I each had to take a bite to prove to them that it wasn’t our dog, that we didn’t love it, and as soon as they left we were throwing up and crying. And so that was why my father said we couldn’t stay [in Laos]. They were on to us. They knew.”
A new life
Lee’s family fled Laos for good in 1978-1979, moving first to Thailand and then to Wisconsin, sponsored by area churches. “For us children, it was relatively easy,” said Lee about adjusting to life in the United States. She and her four brothers quickly learned to read and speak English. Her parents, though, were depressed by the isolation of life in rural Wisconsin, and the family moved to the Twin Cities in 1981.
“They’d [Twin Cities organizations] already set up a lot of structures to help the Hmong, and that was part of the draw,” she explained. The Lees also had relatives in the Twin Cities who provided a place to stay while her parents built a life for their family here. A bright student, Lee soon found herself at Carleton College, ready for a career in medicine.
Preserving her past
“I never thought I would be an historian,” Lee said. “I thought I would be a scientist, a doctor, something with mathematics, because that was really my love.” However, she experienced what she called “an identity shift” while an undergraduate. Shocked to find nothing about Hmong history in the college library, “I realized there are things that are perhaps more important than the sciences,” she said. “I started to think about, ‘what is Hmong history’?”
Lee decided that she needed to find out. Her resolve was strengthened by a history professor, himself a Chinese exile. He told Lee about Lu Xun, the Chinese writer who turned from a career in medicine to one in writing to “lift the spirits of his people.”
“That is exactly what I was feeling inside,” Lee said excitedly. “Perhaps it’s not [only] important to heal bodies, but to focus on the spiritual aspects of my own people. To do that means they have to know their history, and their history has to be known to other people. I decided that this is what I needed to do-look into the history of the Hmong people. Because if I don’t care enough to do it, nobody else is going to.”
Lee earned a B.A. in history with an emphasis on East Asian history and women’s studies at Carleton and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her academic work earned her a job as a professor at the University of Minnesota and the opportunity to teach others about Hmong history. In addition, she is in demand as a speaker and expert. “At New Year’s events, at other events, I get called to give inspirational speeches. … There’s just so many opportunities,” Lee said, somewhat ruefully. Her schedule fills up fast, and she’s not able to do everything she’s asked. But being able to talk about Hmong history in the community is an important way for Lee to be sure Hmong stories and traditions are preserved.
“Hmong people feel that they are on the verge of cultural and linguistic extinction,” Lee said seriously. “There is a real fear that this generation doesn’t speak Hmong anymore, they’re not culturally competent.” One of Lee’s goals is to be sure that some young Hmong people will remain as “experts of their culture, of their history. At least we can retain it in the writings, or what we do in the classroom.”
Along with her passion for Hmong history and culture, Lee has other interests. “Literature is my first love,” she said “I do a lot of writing.” She has written four novels and lots of poetry, and is also an avid reader who enjoys classic Japanese, British and American writers. Lee loves science fiction, and is an avid “Trekkie” who has seen every episode of the TV show and has read many “Star Trek” novels. It’s “part of my love of the sciences,” she said.
Every so often, Lee wonders what her life-and her paycheck-would have been like if she’d stuck to a career in medicine. But she’s convinced that she made the right choice. “I feel like my life has come full circle,” she said. “I still get to do what I love, which is to draw the data, interpret data, to use the data; the only difference is that in this case, I don’t need to do the experiments. They’re already done. I just need to dig it up and interpret it.
“I think I play a part in changing our world,” Lee mused. “I’m optimistic that I do.”