Michael Yang- Southeast Asian Community Specialist, and Former Refugee

Mohamed Malim

My name is Michael Yang. My name Michael was given to me during my baptism. I became Roman Catholic when my family arrived here in 1979. Originally I’m from Laos, I’m Hmong. Hmong is one of the ethnic groups in Laos, and during the Vietnam War, the Hmong were recruited by the United States to fight in a secret army in the place of American troops, because Laos was a neutral country. And no foreign government can send troops into Laos. So during the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese were bypassing Laos to reinforce their troops in the South to fight against the American troops, so the United States had to find a way to stop that. So they recruited the Hmong to fight on behalf of the U.S. 

They assigned weapons, payment, very small like a few dollars per soldier per month, and they recruited kids as young as 12 years old. So as a result of that war, the U.S. pulled out of Southeast Asia and left the Hmong. So my family took us through the jungle into Laos to become political refugees, and from there we were screened for resettlement in the United States. So that’s how I became a resident of the U.S. back in 1979. I became a naturalized citizen, but I’ll always live the Hmong refugee life, throughout my entire young and adult life in the U.S. that lives in me. I did my bachelors at St. John’s University, I did two masters, one of them at Suffolk University, and I’m doing my doctorate right now on public policy and administration. I’m currently working at the city of Minneapolis, I’m the Southeast Asian Community Specialist. We have a lot of Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Karen in the city. So making sure that the city and the community have a working and trusting relationship, making sure there’s good programming, resources available, so that the Southeast Asian community has equal access to information and resources in the cities. In a way so that there is diversity, so that people have equal rights and equal access to all of the resources in the city to live a normal life in the city. I live here in St. Paul but I work in Minneapolis, I have a large family. Again, I’m an ethnic Hmong, I love being Hmong, I hope that I’ll be Hmong in my next life. I love how close our families are tied together. So that’s a short description of who I am and where I am. I’m not sure where I’ll be moving forward, but hopefully doing something positive in the community. 

We didn’t have a choice of where to go. Laos is a tropical country, and we landed in Minnesota, one of the coldest states in the country. I always asked my mom, “Why’d we come here? What is all of this cold white stuff outside?” We didn’t know what snow was. So it was really tough. My family and I, we came here with nothing but the clothes on our backs. We didn’t know any English, we didn’t know how to use a toilet, didn’t know how to use an electric rice cooker. We eventually had to move into the project because that was the safest place for us, but it was a totally different environment. We didn’t want to be here. My parents and I didn’t even want to leave Laos. But we were trying to save ourselves, we wanted to stay alive. So that’s why we were forced to move. My parents always talked about going back to Laos. They were always crying, my dad especially, he was a member of the U.S. secret army in Laos. His brother was, too, and his brother was killed. His photo is in the hall of the Hmong village here. So it was definitely more difficult for my parents than for us. For us, it was more like, “wow, these are new things, we’ve never seen this before,” but for our parents it was more like, “we want to go back to Laos, we don’t want to stay here. This is not who we are, people don’t accept who we are.” We were harassed, we were discriminated against on a daily basis. I remember walking to school from University Ave, several blocks, and I was always picked on. You had to pack your own lunch, so the Black kids, white kids, other kids took my lunch all the time, snatched my lunch out of my hands, called me derogatory names, it was really lonely. I remember we would always close and lock our door and close the blinds. We didn’t even want to go outside because people were harassing us from left to right. My sister even more, because she’s a girl. I remember my dad and my mom were harassed so many times just going to the grocery store and back home. Today discrimination is very open but very different from back then. We were getting beat up all the time. I was smaller than most of the kids at my school, so they would literally beat us up. So we started to hang out together with the other Hmong refugee kids to protect one another. 

Then law enforcement calls you a gang. You’re coming together to protect each other because you’re getting beat up. You’re looking at a 12 year-old small Asian boy, small frame, light weight, then you have a 15 year-old Black or white kid bigger than you are, there’s no way you can protect yourself unless you band together with other kids like you. So it was not a gang, it was just protecting each other. So life was really tough. I remember at school I just wanted to sit in the back, and I’d be eating rice and chicken and all my classmates were eating twinkies and sandwiches. It was just really tough for me growing up. I was always the one sitting in the back of the classroom because people didn’t know who I am or the experience, the trauma I had gone through and was still going through. There’s so much hurt and trauma and loneliness, loneliness for your people because you’re out in the middle of nowhere where all of these people are calling you different names and harassing you. And they don’t know what you’re going through as a refugee. We’ve been through war, through seeing people die in front of you, my little brother died in front of me. He died in the refugee camp. I got really sick, I almost died in the camp. I couldn’t eat any dairy products, even now, because my system is not conditioned to it, so I was so ill back in the refugee camp. But my parents suffered more than I did, and many Hmong people die in their sleep of loneliness, of trauma. That this is still an issue that has not been addressed by our community leaders and programmers from the city or the state. They really need to go into the historical trauma that Hmong people are going through and other refugee communities are going through. 

Growing up as a political refugee, kids don’t know who you are and they just expect you to be like them every day. But you have this trauma, you have this nightmare, you know how your brother and sister suffered during the war, you know how your father and mother suffered in the war trying to get you through the jungle. So all of that lives with you on a daily basis as you’re trying to go to school and be friends with kids who don’t have those traumas. Then you go home and see your mom and dad crying about their cousins or sister or relatives back home in Thailand or Laos. We’re sending money, every penny. With food stamps, I’ll take one penny to buy one candy and then go back and give the other 99 cents to my mom who will send it back to Thailand to help our cousin. So you’re living that trauma that other kids don’t grow up with and don’t understand. Oftentimes you put a fake smile on, but you’re hurt because you just learned that your cousin got killed in Laos. It’s extremely tough to smile through that. Especially for young kids. Many of them don’t have a good way to express their feelings, and they start hanging out together with other kids their age, sometimes their parents are so stressed and traumatized by the whole war and their experience, leaving brothers and sisters back home, so they don’t have the time to sit with their kids like a white mom or dad can sit with their white kids and ask “How can I help you?” and provide resources for them. Our parents are already traumatized to the point where they can hardly survive. So we don’t have that support. So we grew up with one thing in our head which is, “I’m gonna do the best I can to study hard so I can become somebody and graduate so I can help my family.” So education was priority number one for all of us. All of our trauma and suffering was packed into this push for education. Everybody was trying to achieve a college degree, and that was super big for all of us if you could graduate from college.

The sooner you graduate you can start working and sending money to your family. So growing up as a political refugee kid is extremely difficult, but our parents went through much more. Much more suffering than we have ever endured here, during that time. Our kids who are born here have an easier time because they didn’t go through that experience with us. But for us and our parents, sometimes I don’t know how we survived. But I guess that’s in the blood of the Hmong people. We always survive in the hardest times. All the way from China to Southeast Asia to here. And now we’re booming. I was watching my niece, Sunisa Lee, she’s competing in Tokyo. She’s a Hmong-American, she’s #2 behind Simone Biles, and they’re competing. Her dad is my best friend from grade school, John Lee. We were best friends since second grade. They’re the godparents for our kids. John and I have been like brothers our whole life. Now seeing his family competing on the international stage. The Hmong people came to the U.S. poor, with no language skills, and now we’re making this huge contribution. I’m just really proud of all of the Hmong individuals who are very successful. Like the co-owner of this place, the Hmong Village here, it’s a one-stop shop for everything you need. From fast food to doing your income tax to a chiropractor, so I’m just really proud. But life is not easy. It’s really really difficult for kids growing up here trying to be like other people to be accepted. But even harder for our parents. Many of them die in their sleep of loneliness. 

People call us “Chink” or “Gook” which is referring to the Chinese and the Vietnamese. We’re not Chinese, we’re not Vietnamese. We’re Hmong who fought and died for the United States. My uncle died as a soldier for the U.S. It takes 10 or 20 Hmong lives to save one American pilot in Laos. The American public did not know this. We are the most loyal friend to the U.S. in the whole Vietnam War, we fought and died for American interests, for American democracy. We died so the American troops don’t have to die. And people still call us chinks, they say we’re here stealing their jobs. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise, and Hmong in St. Paul is targeted the most because we’re the largest Asian population in the state. It’s incredible how all of this discrimination is out in the open. 

It’s really sad that people don’t understand who we are. I’m glad that you guys are doing this type of story, because it shows people who the Hmong people are. My niece, Sunisa, making it to the Olympics, for her to talk about the experience of the Hmong people, we need to amplify more of these stories. Who are the Hmong? We’re not here to steal, we’re not here to take your jobs. We were forced to move away from our home, away from the jungle and mountains of Laos, because hundreds of us fought and died for American freedom. I didn’t want to be here, I had to be here in order for me to stay alive. And I’m grateful to the American people who welcomed us with open arms. I’m grateful to the U.S. government and the people. But overall, there are still many people who misjudge the Hmong people. Every name on the list, they’ve called us. From Gook to Chink to Virus, everything. It’s just not healthy for the diversity here in the U.S. I think that the Hmong community becomes a really positive asset to everywhere that we live. We work hard as farmers, as small business owners, we become police officers, my nephew is serving the U.S. Armed Forces at the National Guard, my cousin is a designer for GM, so we make a lot of positive contributions to this country. We’re not here to take people's jobs, we’re here to survive and make real contributions. That’s the message that people should know. The Hmong people are not a threat to anyone. We never like conflict, we try to move away from conflict. We do our best in every place that we live, we clean our properties, we stay in school, stay positive, and contribute to our communities. Some of the frontline workers right now against COVID-19 are nurses, many Hmong are in that industry, they’re saving lives every day, including one of my nieces. So it’s hard for us to see all of those misconceptions about Hmong, that we’re here to steal jobs or be criminals, that’s just not true.

This is very important. We see what’s happening in Afghanistan right now, the United States pulled out and now the Taliban is coming in and punishing other people. That’s the same thing that happened in Laos. The U.S. went in there, imposed policies, recruited Hmong to fight on their behalf, and they just withdrew and pulled everything out. And people get mad and ask the U.S. not to do that anymore. They must revisit their foreign policy to not create more refugees. People are happy where they live, as long as they have the empowerment through resources and training, and not empowerment through war. When you cause war in another country and then you leave without finishing the job, you are the one, the United States is the one, responsible for displacing all those people. Let’s not do that. Let’s work with their government for peace. And share resources. Teach them how to farm, share with them the resources we have, whether it be data, research, the COVID vaccine, business, education, let’s work on an international empowerment project. 

I was really happy living in Laos, that’s my country, we were happy, even living with a dirt floor. The United States needs to stop their wars and help create peace by sharing skillsets like economic development, education, sustainable farming, let’s put that policy together. If you don’t do that and you go into war, you create what’s happening in Afghanistan. That’s what happened in Laos. For those refugees already in the U.S. I think the government needs to put more funding into a program to educate people on who refugees and immigrants are, the positive things they’re doing, the stories of why they’re here. Empower them by providing training, job training, educational opportunities, so they can learn to be on their own two feet. In the Hmong community we have a very important principle not to be dependent on others for your own life. Meaning, when you become an adult at 18 years old, your responsibility is to make a contribution to your community. But in the U.S. it’s a different time with technology. So provide refugees with access to resources so that they can get a job, buy their own home, move away from crime. But if you don’t provide them equal opportunity, in the United States, you can’t just go to a wooded area and slash and burn and cultivate your own corn because all the lands are government-owned. So you need a different way to empower refugees with job skill training, opportunity to grow. If we don’t, we’ll create dependency for these individuals to be on public assistance with no job skills. Then what are they going to do? You can’t survive. So the United States should put together a peace plan to provide resources and training for small developing countries to build their own economy. For those who are already here, work on them, accept them, provide them the resources to become U.S. citizens so that they can vote, they can make contributions to the U.S. Educational training, technical, job skills, those are the most important things we can provide. 

My definition of success is whenever I am able to make somebody smile. That to me is success. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how big or strong you are, if what you do cannot bring a smile to another person’s face, you’re not there yet. You will be there, but you’re not there yet. So that the work you do, the passion you have, you’re able to comfort another person’s heart and bring out their smile, that to me is success.

First of all, I’m really proud of my mother and my father. One of my biggest accomplishments is to finish college because my parents always wanted us to pursue education. That’s what they knew. Go to school with all of this trauma, we want you to have a better future, so go to school. Education is number one. So I graduated from high school and my parents were super happy, I already felt very successful as a kid who started second grade here with no language skills. So I graduated high school and was really happy, I could see my parents smiling at me. And when I got accepted to St. John’s University, and I graduated from there, my parents were even more happy for me. So my goal is for me to be successful, I wanted to finish what I dreamed about when my parents brought me here, which is to finish my PhD. So I finished my two masters, I’m really happy with that, I feel like I’ve made a lot of impact, and now I’m working on my doctorate. I think completing those degrees are my biggest successes. 

Being the first in my family to achieve that level of education, it created a role model for my kids, for my niece, my nephew, my whole family. That’s my biggest success, because I was able to bring a smile to my mother’s and father’s face when they knew I finished my masters degree. Unfortunately they both passed away. In my culture whenever you complete something very special, your parents do an event to honor you, so my parents always said they would do an event to honor me when I finished college and I would always say, “Let’s hold on Dad, I’m gonna keep going, I’m gonna go to the top and finish at the top before we do that,” and then they passed away. So my challenge is to complete my PhD, and I will be happy. And now my kids are in college, so I’m really happy that my accomplishments were able to show them that education is the best way. I’m happy about the impact I’ve made on my family and the larger Hmong community. And without my education I wouldn’t be in the role that I’m in right now in the city, and I am really proud to be a voice for my community, and that’s thanks to my educational success. My two masters were in public administration and policy, and now my doctorate that I’m working on is in public administration and policy. Because my mom always told me to make sure that other kids and families didn’t suffer like us. So I wanted to specifically go into government, because I knew from my parents that if I wanted to change something it’s through public policy and legislation at the government level. So that’s where I’m going, I could have gone to other professions, but that’s something that I know from my parents. Because I saw in my mom how she made that impact by being a strong leader in the Hmong community. So now my degrees allow me to be in this position where I work at the state level on policies that affect the Hmong. I’m able to provide my input and have a voice at the table, that’s what I wanted to focus on so I can make a long term contribution to my community. But every profession is good. Just for me personally I felt like public policy is the best way for me to help the Hmong community locally and internationally.

Be proud of who you are. Never let go of your culture, of your traditions. And never let go of your values of family and respect and believing in yourself, being a human, having humanity in your heart like your culture teaches you. Because in America, they would teach you about the green in my hand, me, myself, and I. You will not survive on that. I learned that, and I got to where I am today because I kept the good part of my culture. Every culture has good parts you can keep, so keep the good parts. Respecting your elders, having full responsibility for yourself and your children, being a responsible dad, don’t depend on others, be a crime-free individual, be an image for your entire community, because if there’s one Hmong criminal, people will have that perception of your entire community. So as a young person, be proud of who you are. Learn your own language, learn your culture, respect your parents, those are lifelong values that will hold you strong that will make you grow up to be who you are without trying to be like somebody else. Oftentimes as refugee kids we try to be like somebody else so that our peers accept us. That will not work in the long term. Be proud of who you are, be respectful of people, be respectful of life, be a fair person, embrace diversity. Diversity of gender, diversity of people, diversity of voices. 

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