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The Benefits of Lived Experience

Dr. Mai See Thao

Title: Director of Hmong Studies/Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Global Religions, and Cultures, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Age: 34

Education: B.A., anthropology, University of WisconsinMadison, and Ph.D., socio-cultural anthropology, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Career mentors: Mai Na Lee, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; Jean Langford, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; Hoon Song, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; Karen-Sue Taussig, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities; Linda Meurer, Medical College of Wisconsin; Kajua Lor, Medical College of Wisconsin; and Ma Vang, University of California Merced

Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Find/ create your communities. The journey may feel lonely and exhausting at times, but find/create different types of communities that will sustain [you] as you do the hard work of addressing diversity and inequity. Find/create a community of rest that can be friends or family members, but they should be individuals who allow you to rest, turn off work, and just be alive. And lastly, don’t forget to find/create this kind of community in yourself. "

Dr. Mai See Thao said she was always interested in medicine. But instead of pursuing medicine per se, she found a way to have it intersect with her identity as a Hmong person, choosing to become a medical anthropologist.

Thao is an assistant professor of anthropology and director of Hmong studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (UWO), roles she stepped into in 2020.

Thao wanted to share her story, which she said is an accurate one from someone of Hmong descent.

“I think anthropology through a Hmong lens really helped me to think through my lived experiences of who I am but also to really appreciate the narratives,” Thao said. “I think when most people hear about Hmong people, they hear the book, ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,’ which is widely taught in medical education and anthropology. ... At that time, these texts were mostly done by non-Hmong scholars, predominantly white scholars, missionaries, anthropologists.

“Just seeing those kinds of narratives and seeing how harmful they were and how they racialize Hmong people as primitive and stubborn without really realizing or understanding the full breadth of their human experiences as refugees who were just resettled here, ... just experienced war, ... [resettled in the U.S. and put] into places of poverty. They move into the landscape of racial segregation. It was then that I realized that I could tell my own story and I can tell a more truthful story and I could put that in the world as a scholar.”

Apart from UWO, Thao is an adjunct assistant professor at the Center for Healthy Communities and Research in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Medical College of Wisconsin.

Thao is involved in multiple Hmong-related projects, such as her in-progress book on Hmong people, resettlement, and chronic disease, and “Cia Siab (Hope) in Wisconsin: A HMoob (Hmong) Story,” a traveling, community-based exhibit about Hmong refugees, belonging, and historical trauma that will launch in 2025.

“So we don’t really know what Hmong life post-resettlement is like,” said Thao, discussing the exhibit. “The exhibit itself is to center Hmong experiences of historical trauma and to really pose audience members this question to think about, ‘What are the ongoing consequences of war?’ We often think of war as something that only happens over there, and when [refugees] come here, [they] are saved and no longer have to deal with war anymore. But our exhibit is saying, ‘No, war shows up in the everyday, in the mundane, and in the private home, and on this land.’”

Thao earned her B.A. in anthropology and a certificate in Asian American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

“I think that Dr. Thao is someone who puts a lot of heart into what she does,” said Dr. Alicia Johnson, former interim university diversity officer at UWO and the colleague who nominated Thao. “And so, if she brings forward a concern or a suggestion, it has been thought through critically and is to make the space around her and the community better. So, I think that she has had a profound impact on our institution as well as the broader community. ... She’s really helped create a strong foundation for Hmong studies as well as to grow the program along with other ethnic studies concentrations.”

Thao said she is fascinated by humanity and the human experience.

“I think I see my scholarly work as engaging in these larger discussions in the humanities, of basically what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to experience displacement and to be resilient,” Thao said. “And I think that’s so pertinent to today with the COVID pandemic. ... How have other communities that have gone through displacement or crisis sustained themselves?

“I’m really trying to pose questions of how do we live in this current moment when everything feels so presently threatening,” she continued. “How have Hmong people been trying to think about that philosophical question of what does it mean to have a worthwhile life? Hmong studies is an entrance into these larger questions and conversations about the humanities.”

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