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Getting to Know Chia Youyee Vang

When her book Hmong in Minnesota published earlier this year, Dr. Chia Youyee Vang wasn’t surprised the ethnic press ran reviews and announcements of it. Instead, what struck her was how much attention it drew from mainstream broadcast and print media.

She appeared multiple times on general-interest TV and radio shows in the Midwest, for instance, to promote the book, a descriptive history of how the Hmong, including herself as an 8- year-old, arrived in the United States in the 1970s and struggled to adapt to urban life. A bookstore reading in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area featuring Vang attracted such a big crowd that a subsequent one was scheduled.

The warm reception to the book was quite a contrast to how the Hmong used to be treated in this country, says Vang, an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She endured racial epithets and taunts daily at her St. Paul elementary school. “The kids were so mean,” she recalls. “And when you live in a poor neighborhood, everyone fights over the smallest of resources.”

Her family, like thousands of others, fled their homeland of Laos. Many Hmong had secretly aided the U.S. military in its fight against communism in Southeast Asia, and faced persecution after the communists seized power during the Vietnam War and Americans pulled out of Vietnam. Those who dared to leave Laos often did so during the cover of night, risking their lives on rickety boats on the Mekong River in hopes of reaching Thailand.

In St. Paul, Vang escaped her daily troubles through reading. She devoured classics like the Little House on the Prairie series. Ironically, reading wasn’t common among Hmong overseas who were farmers and villagers like her family. Because Hmong didn’t become established as a written language until the 1950s, many members of the older generations spoke it but learned to read and write only in the United States or in the refugee camps of Thailand. “My mother didn’t hold a pen in her hand until she was 38 years old,” says Vang, who earned her doctorate in American studies from the University of Minnesota.

Vang, who specializes in the study of Hmong community-building efforts, has finished her second book manuscript, which delves into resettlement issues and the historical migration of her people. By next January, she plans to launch UW’s certificate program in Hmong studies, which will include courses in Hmong language and history.

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