Celebrate Suni Lee’s gold medal win, and the small victories and successes of all Hmong



Sunisa (Suni) Lee’s gold medal win in women’s all-around gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics places Suni as the first Hmong American and the first Asian American to win gold for Team USA. Suni has not shied away from her ethnic identity as a Hmong American, saying she did this for her father, herself, her coach and her Hmong community .

In Minnesota, home to the largest concentration of Hmong in the entire United States, Suni’s family held a watch party with the Hmong community. Suni’s win brings much visibility to the ways her own people and community have been made invisible and secreted (Vang 2021) from America’s history.

Suni herself is a first generation Hmong American. Her parents resettled in the U.S. as refugees after America’s Secret War in Laos (1964-1973), where U.S. CIA operatives covertly recruited Hmong and other ethnic Lao fighters to serve as proxy soldiers for America’s war against Communism. It is estimated that 30,000 Hmong people died in that war (Chan 1991).

In 1973, the U.S. withdrew from Southeast Asia, abandoning the majority of their American allies who eventually fled Laos into Thailand due to the impending violence, fear and death in reeducation camps implemented by the Pathet Lao Communist government. Because the Secret War was hidden from the American public, not made public until 1997, even U.S. Immigration was wary of resettling the Hmong.

To this day, the history of the Hmong remains largely omitted from history books, focusing mainly on the Vietnam War. Many Hmong American children themselves grow up never learning about their own people and why they are here. Since Suni’s gold medal, many non-Hmong have been searching online, “What is Hmong?”

Out on Twitter, tweets from various individuals have been recommending the book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This book, written by a white woman journalist, is often claimed as a medical anthropology and historical account of the Hmong. However, the book is deeply racist and problematic; she often excuses the Anti-Asian racism the Hmong family faces from medical doctors in the book to her characterization of the Hmong as primitive, traditional and unassimilable. Putting this book in the same limelight as Suni’s gold medal accomplishment detracts from the joy and the healing potential of what Suni’s accomplishment represents to a displaced community.

Instead, this moment should take in what Phillipe Thao writes in his op-ed in The Washington Post. He writes that a community member shared that Suni’s win on the global stage “feels like being acknowledged by a history that has only erased us. It’s not that the world finally noticed us; we wrote ourselves into the record.”

Here in Oshkosh, home to a vibrant and thriving Hmong American community spread throughout the Fox Valley, Hmong American students of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh have also written themselves into the record, advocating for the creation of a Hmong Studies Program that would bring Hmong Studies curriculum to UWO students. The Hmong Studies Program teaches Hmong history through a critical lens, highlighting the voices of Hmong American scholars and the diverse and complex experiences of what it means to Hmong in America. Hmong American students share their excitement and what this accomplish means to them:

Yingyakia Vang, a UWO student said: “I cried out of joy when I heard about the news. Suni Lee did it. For once, I was not reading headlines or articles bringing down the Hmong community and portraying them as underdogs, primitive individuals, criminals, etc. Instead, we were being recognized for something good, and our history was being learned by many who had never been taught about the Hmong people. Suni became someone that no Hmong person had imagined themselves to be and now, Hmong youth are expanding their dreams and following them. I hope that more people are able to learn more about Hmong people from this and understand why it has such importance to the Hmong community. I hope that Suni continues to do what she loves as she has given more to the Hmong community than she knows. Although it is her journey, I am happy that she has allowed the Hmong community to be a part of it. I am incredibly proud of her.”

Another UWO student, Pa Zao Yang said: “I am proud that she is the first Hmong American woman to be a part of the Olympics, not just representing the USA, but the Hmong community as well. At such a young age, she became a role model that many look up to. Despite her parents not being able to be there physically, it did not stop her from achieving her dreams. Instead, she used that to push herself. I hope that she continues to pursue her passion. ”

While Mai See Thao, director of the Hmong Studies Program, feels excited and a sense of pride in Suni’s accomplishments, she also wants to remember that this win comes at a time of so much tragedy for the Hmong American and Asian American community. In Minnesota, it was found that COVID-19 was the leading cause of death for the Hmong. This disparity would have also remained invisible had the Hmong community not demanded for the disaggregation on COVID-19 data for Asians . Even Suni’s own aunt and uncle died from COVID-19 . In addition, Hmong as well as Asians continue to face ongoing racial violence due the previous president’s scapegoating of COVID-19 to those of East Asian descent and America’s long history of racism towards Asians and Asian Americans.

Critical of this moment, where Asians and Asian Americans are seen as threatening, disease ridden and perpetual foreigners, Suni’s exceptional performance as an Olympian taps into the model minority stereotype that Asian Americans can only be visible and seen as American if they achieve only exceptional dreams. It is often these two polar opposites that are part of the racialization of Asian Americans, and this moment shows how quickly America can move between these polar opposites. As we celebrate what Suni’s victory means for America and for the Hmong American community, Thao wants us to celebrate Suni’s accomplishments along with the small victories and successes of all Hmong and Asian Americans, especially of Asian American women today. Celebrate the most mundane wins, including just surviving the pandemic and the racial violence. And t most importantly, no one should have to achieve impossible dreams or to be the first of anything to finally be seen. So elevate the small wins that don’t always align with American exceptionalism.

Suni’s accomplishment should not be seen as only a demonstration of accomplishing an Olympic dream, but also how Hmong Americans are writing themselves into the historical record on their own terms and how that work is central in creating a place of belonging and healing for a displaced community. For those at UWO, her visibility reminds us of the importance of representation, teaching and uplifting marginalized histories. Suni herself (not any of her medals) is a reminder of the importance of doing those things not for anyone else but for ourselves, those we love and the communities we are a part of.