S.10: E.2: From Refugee to Gustie to Hmong Historian

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alum and leading Hmong historian Dr. Chia Vang '94.
Posted on September 14th, 2021 by

Dr. Chia Vang ’94, Professor of History at the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the first Hmong graduate of Gustavus, talks about her family’s journey from Laos to Minnesota—part of the Hmong diaspora to the United States and elsewhere—Hmong history, the agency of Hmong women, Hmong pilots during the Vietnam War, her experiences at Gustavus, and how the College helped her become who she is.

Season 10, Episode 2: From Refugee to Gustie to Hmong Historian

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

Minnesota is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States, and I’m proud to say, Gustavus is the alma matter of the leading scholar of the Hmong diaspora, Dr. Chia Vang, who is herself Hmong.

Dr. Vang graduated Gustavus in 1994, its first Hmong graduate, with majors in political science and French. She went on to earn an MA in public affairs and a PhD in American studies from the University of Minnesota. Since 2006, she’s been a member of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she directs the Hmong Diaspora studies program and teaches courses in 20th century U.S. history, Cold War Asia, Asian-American history, Hmong history, refugee migration, and transnational diasporic communities.

In addition to teaching, she has served as Associate Vice Chancellor in the university’s division of global inclusion and engagement, and currently is interim chief diversity, equity inclusion officer. A prolific scholar, Dr. Vang’s many publications and presentations include articles, reviews and chapters, conference papers, invited talks and keynote addresses, and one indispensable book after another. The latter include Hmong in Minnesota, Hmong America: Reconstructing Community and Diaspora; Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women; and most recently, Prisoner of Wars: a Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life.

An active public intellectual as well, she’s been interviewed for radio and TV, served as an advisor to the Minnesota History Center’s, We Are Hmong Minnesota exhibit, and was instrumental in developing and facilitating the Hmong Milwaukee Civic Engagement Project. Writing and speaking as both an academic and Hmong woman, Professor Vang has greatly enriched our understanding of Hmong people, who too often have been reduced to a homogenous group of simple mountainous Laotian farmers who aided the U.S. War in Southeast Asia and were rendered victims and refugees by it. Like her scholarship, her own story is quite compelling. It’s a real treat to speak with her about both for the podcast.

So, welcome, Chia. It’s great to have you on.

Chia Vang:

Thank you so much for having me.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about your, before we get to Gustavus, tell us a little bit about your growing up, where you were born, where you grew up.

Chia Vang:

Sure. Well, thanks again for having me. Gustavus has a very important place in my life, so I’m pleased to be here.

So for the very beginning, I was born in Laos. Approximately 1971, and there’s a reason why I say that. Because people didn’t keep, most people, like my parents who were villagers, farmers, they didn’t keep track of what day we were born. They remember we were born during the harvest season or the planting season. So, they didn’t keep track of the exact date.

In 1971, approximately, only because they also didn’t keep track of years. They didn’t live that way. But my uncle remembered, my uncle who served in the Secret Army that worked with the U.S. during the U.S. Secret War in Laos, or the larger Vietnam War, my uncle was drafted. So, he went to, he was drafted. He went to training in June 1971. He said he remembers that I was just born when he had to go.

So, it was through his recollection then, we were able to find a month of when I was born, and the year. Born in a village in Laos, around 1971. My family, as you know, when the war ended for the Americans in 1973, of course, I was just a baby. But my family tried to leave in 1975 when other leaders and thousands of refugees tried to leave.

But we couldn’t, for a number of different reasons. My father was not a high ranking officer. He was a soldier in the earlier part of the war, but he didn’t have any high ranking title, so we tried to go back to live normal life. It would not be until 1979, when I was already then eight years old, that my family began the journey, as the other 150,000 Hmong and nearly 1.4 million Southeast Asians, who fled Southeast Asia after the war.

So, long story short, we spent about six months in the refugee camp at Ban Vinai, which many Hmong, and others, too experienced, a refugee camp in Thailand. But we were, in some ways, my uncle, my dad’s youngest brother was already in Minnesota in 1976.

Greg Kaster:

Ah.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. So, when we came, the refugee program had changed a great deal by 1980. If you remember when the refugee conditions first were started, people thought it would be a temporary moment. We have a crisis. We’ll solve it. We’ll be done, just like other former refugee crises.

But it didn’t end. More and more people kept fleeing Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. So, we were those people who came in 1980. We were part of the later waves of farmers and others who didn’t have a major role with Americans who served there. But nevertheless, we were on the side of Americans during the war.

So, we spent only six months in the refugee camp. My uncle had communicated, sent a note, letter back to my parents, or messages through all kinds of different ways. It’s amazing, right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Chia Vang:

During that time, we didn’t have internet and phone like this, but we communicated with each other.

So, when we got to the refugee camp with my four brothers and my younger sister, my oldest sister had been married, so she wasn’t with us at the time. But the message from my uncle in Minnesota, my Uncle Tom Vang is that, “You don’t stay. You bring your children to America as soon as you can.”

So, we were only there for six months. We arrived in Minnesota April 13, 1980, and grew up in Saint Paul, and went to public school there. We spent one year in Winona when my father was in a farming training program. But then, in the early ’80s, around ’84, ’85, we were there. Then we moved back to Saint Paul and graduated from Johnson High School.

I think the first time I met Mark Anderson, the former Admissions Director at Gustavus, he and I have a very special relationship. He was at this recruiting event. A friend, [Brong 00:07:26] Lee, he had gone to the same high school, but he was the first Hmong to come to Gustavus. So, he was with Mark at this recruitment affair. I talked to them, and met Mark, and there’s the beginning of our beautiful friendship.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Chia Vang:

I [crosstalk 00:07:46] Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great, Mark is legendary, of course. I know a little bit about him. I was aware that you had a special relationship with him, and vice versa.

I’m struck by, one, you remember, I guess maybe it’s not that surprising, but still, you were young. You remember, or know the exact date when you arrived in Saint Paul or Minnesota. Then I had a question. Were your parents farmers? Is that what they were doing in Laos?

Chia Vang:

Yeah. Yeah. My father was in the war, but yeah. We were just farmers. We were literally just farmers. But during the war, as you learn about Hmong history, most people were agrarian and we relied on just the land, and feeding ourselves.

So, they were just farmers. My father probably had, maybe second grade education. He really, really was motivated. Because during the Colonial Era, during the French Colonial Era, many people who went to school, if they happened to have gone to school in France, the Colonial subjects, they’ll come back. They have all these nice posts. So, if they even just learned to read and write, then they were just so revered.

So my parents, even though they didn’t know how to read and write, they knew what that meant, that education, how valuable that was. Yeah, he knew how to read and write a little bit in Lao language, but no schooling for myself until we came to the U.S.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. What did your dad do, or did both parents work once they were in Minnesota?

Chia Vang:

As I mentioned, my parents, my mother was already around 38 when we came with all of my siblings. We were born in Laos. They my father, a couple years older. They came and they really tried to make farming work.

Minnesota had, again, this whole idea about Hmong being farmers. So there’s a number of initiatives in Minnesota to support them. So my father was actually in that training program. I believe it was Hennepin County. When you talk about how I remember April 13, just so you know, they’re not my memory. Because I am a historian, and I have been writing and researching.

So, all the refugees, when we come, we have this little immigration bag that, all of our documents are in there. So, I’m the historian in my family, so I have that bag with our travel documents. That’s why, I have plane tickets, I have all these different things in there.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. You have your own archive.

Chia Vang:

I do, yeah. I have an archive in my house. There’s a story about how I ended up with that bag, but we’ll talk about that another time.

My parents, they were older. My mom learned how to read and write a little bit, and she learned her ABCs, and she learned how to read and write in Hmong, because we use the Roman alphabet. My father, he tried to make farming work, so he was in that training program.

That’s how we eventually went to Winona. It was a farming project called the Hiawatha Valley Coop. The idea that church world service was partnershiped to church world service, the state of Minnesota, really trying to get these Hmong farmers to learn more advanced technologies. They were purchasing this 1300 acre, in Homer, Minnesota, just a little bit north of Winona.

So, we lived on the farm. My father farmed with the other Hmong men. But the project failed, so then we moved back to Saint Paul. I went to junior high and high school there. Then every summer, we farmed. We were some of the earliest Hmong Farmer’s Market participants in the Tri-Cities.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I wondered about that. For all I know, I saw you there, even, and didn’t know it, before I knew you.

But then, was he still doing agricultural work from Saint Paul? What happened once that first project failed?

Chia Vang:

That project failed, so then we came back to Saint Paul.

So, we started a seasonal farming business. My family rented land in Hugo, where some uncles had purchased some land, and then we went to Hastings. So, we farmed until, it was a few years after I finished Gustavus, actually, when my father’s health deteriorated. Then we made them stop.

But that was their joy. They loved it, Greg. It was what they knew. During the wintertime, they were so depressed because they couldn’t go out and do things. But as soon as spring came, they worked so hard. They were sweaty and all of that, but there was so much joy for them to plant, to see the crops, to harvest, and we go sell them at the Minneapolis and Saint Paul’s farmers markets. That was their joy, so that’s what they did.

Greg Kaster:

Those crops have enriched those markets. It’s amazing. Just people like me, what we’ve learned about cooking and food from immigrants, including Hmong immigrants selling at those markets.

Now, a couple of questions, I guess, to maybe help our listeners understand the Hmong history a little bit, or the history of this migration. First of all, is Minnesota the largest home to Hmong in the United States, or just one of? I don’t know.

Chia Vang:

It’s not. Actually, California, in terms of state population, California has had the largest Hmong population as a state. But Minnesota is the second largest Hmong population, and then Wisconsin. It’s been this pattern forever. California, Minnesota, Wisconsin.

Greg Kaster:

Oh! So, Wisconsin, too?

Chia Vang:

Yeah. The Midwest, actually, as a region is bigger than anywhere else.

Greg Kaster:

Is that because of farming? We think of the Midwest and farming. Is it the fact that most of the Hmong who resettled in the U.S. are farmers, are engaged in agrarian work?

Chia Vang:

No, actually. It’s not. That’s a good question because that sometimes is an assumption, because of what we just talked about. But in fact, it is a reflection of the Minnesotans and Wisconsinites because in the refugee camps, remember, we couldn’t come until we have an American sponsor.

So, refugee decisions are made at the federal level, federal, international level. But once we get here, it is local communities, organizations, churches, individuals who open their homes, and churches, and communities to us.

So, where the Hmong people are now reflects Americans who actually were willing to sponsor us initially. As later we become just like other immigrants. We practice chain migration. We see where things are better. We want to be with family and friends, so we move. But initially, it was wherever we could get a sponsor. Minnesota and Wisconsin just had a lot of sponsors. Iowa, as well. Many have moved to the Twin Cities.

Greg Kaster:

So, most Hmong, contrary to the assumption or the stereotype, or many, not most, are not farming. What are some of their occupations?

Chia Vang:

So, Minnesota, and I did want to back up a little bit. Minnesota has the second largest population, but in terms of a concentration, since 2000, the Twin Cities. It’s not really fair because we know that it’s two cities; Saint Paul and Minneapolis. But in terms of a concentration then, the Twin Cities is the largest concentration of Hmong in the country.

Greg Kaster:

Okay.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. I think your question about, I lost my train of thought. About what they’re doing the career.

Greg Kaster:

Right, yes.

Chia Vang:

So, farming, many people, if you go to the farmer’s market now, you still see quite a few Hmong people. But I think in the early beginning, most families, initially when we came, we were supposed to, you know how refugee resettlement policy is. You have to demonstrate that you’re not going to be a burden to society.

So, by the time my family came, they gave us, the federal government, the policy changed, so you had 18 months. Initially, it was 36 months for the first wave, but it changed because so many more refugees were coming. So, it reduced to 18 months. Then the families are supposed to become self-sufficient. Think about that. 18 months to become self-sufficient.

So, you don’t speak any English. You don’t have the formal education in this country, but the policy says you have to become self-sufficient. So most families actually could not become self-sufficient. So many families, like my family, we ended up having to depend on public assistance to make ends meet. My family was, like many, many other families, too, we were on welfare for some time, until we were able to help ourselves.

So, that’s the early days. That’s what happened. But then many who could work in jobs, in manufacturing, manufacturing’s one of the biggest areas, if you look at the Census data on where Hmong people work, and then the service sector.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, sure.

Chia Vang:

Many are in the service sector.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that makes sense.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. But farming’s a very small proportion of our community who actually farm for a living.

Greg Kaster:

That is so interesting because, as you say, that is the assumption, if not stereotype. Maybe that’s fed by the presence at farmer’s markets.

But yeah, that’s right. When I think about what you just said, service industry, of course. That makes perfect sense, and borne out by my own eyes. When I have them open, anyway.

Chia Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So you were the first in your family to attend college, right? Gustavus?

Chia Vang:

I was not the first to attend.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, you were not the first? Go ahead.

Chia Vang:

No. I have two older brothers. So, my oldest brother went to UW-Stout, and then my-

Greg Kaster:

Oh.

Chia Vang:

Yeah, the brother who was just older than me, he went to Mankato State.

So, they both went to college, but I am the first girl to go to college. Then I am the first Hmong person to graduate from Gustavus. My friend, Brong Lee was there, but he transferred out. He was there, I think two years, and then he transferred. Then, the year I came, another friend, Tong, came as well, but he transferred to the University of Minnesota. So, I was the only one who stayed and graduated from Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

We’re glad of that. We’ll forgive the other two. We’re glad you stayed.

Chia Vang:

Sure.

Greg Kaster:

Tell us a little bit about, insofar as you can recall, your experiences at Gustavus, both positive and negative, or challenging, if you like, as a Hmong student, where there were no other Hmong, or very few, at least, on campus.

Chia Vang:

I want to say that because I grew up in Saint Paul, mostly in Saint Paul. I went to Johnson High School, very diverse. I had lots of Hmong friends. I had lots of other groups, as well. I was a very active student. I played sports. I joined clubs. I was doing all kinds of things, so I was a very engaged student.

Sometimes I think I’m more American than some Americans, when they talk about school spirit and the high school experience, I was doing everything. It’s really interesting because I graduated and a few times, I had met students, one particular student, a white female student who was not in my cohort, the college prep cohort. I met her a number of years later. She said, “Oh, we graduated the same year. You’re the first Hmong person I know who’s really motivated.” I said, “Because you were not in my cohort. There are many of us who want to do great things.”

But anyway, I had that experience. I came from very diverse, so I was going to either Saint Olaf or Gustavus. Those are my two that I was going to go. I chose Gustavus largely, I think, because I met Mark, and because my friend Brong was there, too. I actually applied early. I did the early application. Mark was really phenomenal.

I chose Gustavus because most Hmong friends of mine, women friends who, they went to the University of Minnesota, or other places that were closer. I wanted to be away from home, but not too far away because I didn’t really have all the financial resources to fly back and forth somewhere else.

So, Gustavus was far enough for me. My parents, they didn’t speak any English, but they really valued education. So, my father and my mother supported me doing all these extracurricular activities, as long as I was a good student, too.

So anyway, long story short, they, like other American families or parents, they drove me to Gustavus. I moved in. I lived in, is it the dorm on the north side? Is it Norelius?

Greg Kaster:

Oh, Norelius, sure.

Chia Vang:

Is it the more reputation of party dorm?

Greg Kaster:

I think so.

Chia Vang:

Or maybe not for you, okay.

So, I was placed there my first semester and I was very unhappy. My roommate and I just had really different music tastes. The girls, the young women on my floor, I like to take 8:00 classes. We farmed. I wake up early. That’s when I feel the most productive and alert. They liked to sit and chat in the hallway until 3:00 in the morning.

I couldn’t make it work. My roommate, I feel bad all this time for abandoning her because eventually, she dropped out. But I moved halfway through the semester. I think maybe it was, I went to Mark. I think I remember telling him how unhappy I was, and that it was the wrong place for me.

He obviously made it happen. There happened to be a, Wahlstrom has been torn down, right?

Greg Kaster:

I think so.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. So, you know the dorm. There are six, little tiny rooms, but we share common space.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Chia Vang:

I was able to move into that area. I loved having five other roommates, but I also really liked my own tiny, little five by eight room. The women in that little area, they were all very studious. Not that we were boring. They were very studious. They were very serious. They didn’t like to drink and stay up in the hallway all night. So, I found a perfect place for me to thrive.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. I can totally relate. I went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, so I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Just like you, I wanted to be away from home, but not too far. So, I was about 75 miles away. But my first semester, I had a roommate. It was okay, but not great. Then I managed to convince my parents to pay for a single room I could have my second semester. What a difference that made.

Chia Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

But anyway, I can completely relate. That can color the way you feel about the institution, if you’re not able to function the way you best function. In your case, 8:00. I’m the same way. I love getting up early. I work best early in the morning, so we would have been a good match.

Chia Vang:

I work third shift, too, but I like to get up early. I joke about it. I can study until midnight and I’ll get up at 6:00. It’s just that I wasn’t a boring person, but I really thought college was a privilege for me to be there. I wanted to succeed and I wanted to do it well. I didn’t want to just pass and be done, and get a BA. That was a big deal, then.

It still is, but I didn’t want to just go through the motion. I just wanted to do everything, and enjoy it, and it was a privilege. That’s how I treated it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I talk to my students about the difference between an education and a degree. You were there for an education in all senses of that word. What drew you to poli sci, and then to French as majors?

Chia Vang:

In school, I didn’t know anybody. When I was in junior high, I didn’t know anybody who had a PhD, but for some strange reason, I read about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor. I tried to think about maybe becoming a doctor, because that’s what parents, especially stereotypically, a lot of Asian parents try to push their kids to being doctors.

So, I actually thought I wanted to do that. But I think it was seventh or eighth grade where we had to dissect a little frog, or something like that.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yes. I had the same experience.

Chia Vang:

I said, “That’s not for me.”

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I remember it well.

Chia Vang:

My science teacher, Mr. Martin, he was also the softball coach. He said, “You’re tough. You can do this.” But I’m just like, “I don’t want to do this.”

So, I didn’t like it. I knew I couldn’t do something like that, but I love civics. I love civics. I just totally loved that and that was my favorite subject in high school. I loved history. I loved all the things about politics and society. Those were things that I really enjoyed.

So, I was very sure by, maybe tenth grade, what I wanted to major in college. There was a moment in time where I thought I would go to law school. That’s what I thought I would do.

Greg Kaster:

And poli sci would be a good preparation for that, actually.

Chia Vang:

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Then I started learning French when I was in ninth grade. I totally loved it. I think it was because, you know how colonized societies are sometimes, right? Even though people want colonialism to end, once it ends, then the colonized society also perpetuates some of the practices of the colonizers.

So, back to my parents. My dad’s love of education and the revering of individuals who had a French education. So, I started learning French in ninth grade. I loved it. Because I really enjoy history, and politics, and political history, I was just really intrigued by these great minds who continued to shape our societies. Why do we keep studying about all these theologians and philosophers?

So, I really enjoy that kind of learning. But it was the summer after I’d finished high school, I knew I wanted to major in political science, so it was all in my application. But then I received an award, which included getting a summer job at the Saint Paul City Attorney’s Office. It was a paid job. I was paid $7.00 an hour. That was a lot of money for me at that time.

Greg Kaster:

No kidding. Wow.

Chia Vang:

So, that whole summer, I was on, Jane McCormick was the city attorney at that time. I was shadowing. Part of it was mentoring and shadowing. I was paid to do the work, but I got to sit in and watch people’s arraignments, and met with her weekly, to see if that’s what I wanted to do.

After the summer was over, I said, “No, thank you. No law school for me.” I didn’t want to represent guilty people. That’s why I don’t like [inaudible 00:28:47]. So, I decided I still wanted to major in political science. But when I got to college, I really loved French, too. So, I really was much more focused on international relations. At one point, I thought that maybe when I finished college I would go to join the Peace Corps, or at one time in life, would work for the UN, or something like that.

So, that’s what I did. I thought French was a good language to be able to speak and do research. Then I came and Gustavus was a very supportive place. I think also because I wanted to get the most out of it. My parents didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t [crosstalk 00:29:34].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I do remember they didn’t.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. I was not number one in my school, so that’s why I keep telling young people, “You don’t have to be valedictorian to succeed, but you do have to-”

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely not.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. But you do have to have a passion for something.

So, in the courses I had, Ron, the people that, my professors, Ron Christansen-

Greg Kaster:

Ron Christansen, and Norm Walbeck, and Don Ostrom?

Chia Vang:

Norm Walbeck, mm-hmm (affirmative). Don Ostrom, yeah. They were just really amazing people. I had good friends, too, at Gustavus, who were also poli sci majors. One of my best friends, Chris Heinz, she did eventually go to law school.

But I just wanted to embrace it all, Greg. I hear my parents talk about how, when they grew up, only the very, very rich people’s kids get to even learn how to read and write. Boy, here I was. It’s all there for me, and nobody’s telling me I can’t have it.

So, they didn’t have much money. I was not number one, but I was a pretty decent student. I did well. I knew how to navigate. So, I was thinking, I was doing the math. For this $80,000 education, I’m paying $11,000.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. Most of that was because I went abroad for a whole year, and there’s extra money I needed.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah. You went to France, right, your junior year?

Chia Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Let me ask you something. I’m seeing you as a poli sci major, as not the first Hmong student at Gustavus, but the first to stay and graduate. There must have been very little reflection of Hmong history and culture, if maybe none, in the curriculum and the teaching, I would think. What was that like? Is that partly why you co-founded the Asian American Club as a Gustavus student?

Chia Vang:

That’s a terrific question, because there was nothing reflected of people who look like me, whose history. As I mentioned, I went to Saint Paul public school. So, my high school, we had an Asian club. We had all kinds of culture events.

This is my philosophy. Even though I was very young, when I was growing up, we, the children learned how to speak English first. So, we were already helping our parents. We were their voice. We were their interpreters. So, I was the president of the Asian club in high school. I was already giving presentations at churches and community groups who wanted to learn more.

But I learned all of these things outside of class. We have a lot of people who lived in Saint Paul, so I felt like I was knowledgeable. Then, when I came to Gustavus, those are things I learned on my own. It wasn’t in the curriculum, but at Gustavus, and I don’t want to take credit for everything, there was a group of us. There were two Vietnamese students. I think Van and another, Trin is his last name.

So, there were a few of us who were Asian students. There were quite a few Korean adoptees, too. But it was interesting. Quite a few of the Korean adoptees, we were all physically Asian, but their lived experiences are very different. Being adopted, they’re mostly from white families, and mostly not from the Twin Cities.

They’re wonderful, but many of them, when we were recruiting, wanting to start this cultural club, I remember clearly one of, he’s a friend. He’s a male Korean adoptee. He told me, “I don’t know anything about Korean culture, so I don’t want to be involved.” That’s okay. I said, “No, that’s fine. It’s not a problem.” But there were not just Asian students who started clubs. We had friends who were white, and other racial backgrounds, who were part of the founding of the Asian Cultural Club at Gustavus.

So I thought the few of us really wanted to, if we didn’t see it, that’s my philosophy. If you want to have something and it doesn’t exist, if you’re going to complain about it, or you’re going to highlight it, or point it out, then you must be willing to do something about it.

So, that was our philosophy. We talked to administrators. Again, back to people like Mark. They said, “Oh, what do you need?” So, that’s what we did. Then we were able to get some of the international students who were of Asian descent. So, it just became a place where we felt like we didn’t want to just assimilate into the Gustavus culture, but that we wanted to also shape parts of the Gustavus experience for ourselves.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s so important. We can come back to that when we talk a little bit later about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Chia Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

I remember the club. I remember how active it was. In preparing for this podcast, I came across a quote from you in the Weekly. Yeah, it was in 1993. There’d been a forum about, I guess about some racism on campus. You were quoted as saying, “You don’t know how difficult it is to be a minority student here.” But you also said in the same breath something you just said a minute ago, which is, “There isn’t just Asian, or Asian American. There’s a whole mess of diversity.”

I gather that’s a theme even in your work on Hmong people, culture, and history, that there’s this tendency to lump all Hmong people together, but there’s a great deal of diversity and variety. Maybe we could talk a little bit about that. Say a little bit about, the Hmong are one of many immigrant groups, obviously, to the U.S. and to Minnesota. What do the Hmong have as an immigrant group or an ethnic group emigrating to the U.S. in common with other groups? Also, not in common with them?

Chia Vang:

I think one of the very important things to point out is that, the way in which people migrate. We were refugees. So obviously, that’s a very different experience than maybe immigrants who prepared to leave. They planned. They get their green card and then they leave. It’s a different path.

But with refugee status, people are fleeing for their lives. Often, it’s either you stay and your life is endangered in ways to propel you to leave, even though you don’t really know where you’re going, and you have no frame of reference about what life in the U.S., or anywhere else would be like.

That’s our collective experience, for Hmong. But we’re not that unique. Other refugees who have come to Minnesota; Somalis, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodians, others have similar experiences. What is, I think, unique or different about Hmong is precisely this story of how we, as a group, there’s a lot of Hmong people who call themselves Hmong, that were called different names by different state actors who, depending on what country we live in.

But those of us who call ourselves Hmong, there’s still millions in China, in Vietnam, and in Laos. But those of us who came to United States are very specifically from Laos, because of the war, and because of our work with U.S. military in Laos. So, that’s a very different kind of experience than Hmong have held onto.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Chia Vang:

If we take away the war, we take away the war, there would be no Hmong people in the United States. We were not migrating.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. You’re reminding me, too. We should talk a little bit about it. There’s an earlier diaspora that people may not be aware of. The Hmong, correct me if I’m wrong, begin in southern China and then are forced out of there? Talk a little bit about that, please.

Chia Vang:

In what we know about Hmong origin, there’s all kinds of theories about Hmong people being from all kinds of other places. But from what we have evidence for, Hmong originated from China. Now, in southern China in particular, where several million still live, and it was really in the mid to late 1800s, as many, many Chinese were leaving for the United States, for other places in Southeast Asia, also, as you see in Malaysia and other places that have become so heavily Chinese dominated.

We were part of, I think, some of those experiences, too. So you begin to have some push factors, war, and with the larger Hung Chinese encroaching more and more to areas in the southern part, where ethnic minorities like the Hmong lived, and then people have to keep fleeing further and further away.

So, long story short, it was really in the late 1800s that a more sizable number of Hmong migrated to Northern Vietnam, and eventually to northern Laos. So, that’s our origin. It’s mostly southern China, as many other Asian groups, as well. We are not indigenous in the sense that, when you talk about indigenous groups in those areas. We’re actually one of the newcomers in northern Laos.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’m thinking a lot of people don’t know that. I didn’t know that, in fact, until I started thinking more about Hmong people, as more Hmong students came to Gustavus. I thought that exhibit that you were involved in at the Minnesota History Center was just fantastic. I learned a lot from that, as well.

But yeah, I think a lot of people think, “Oh, Hmong, Laos, that’s where they start,” but that’s not the case. It’s also not the case that, you’re also saying that even now, the Hmong diasporas is global. It’s not just the U.S. We can get into this later, your work on southeast Asian migrants in the global south. Maybe we could talk about that a bit, too.

But go ahead. You were going to say something, it sounded like.

Chia Vang:

Oh, no. No, I was just agreeing.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. So, the other thing about Hmong, again, you can correct me if I’m wrong. We think of people, other immigrant groups, at least many other immigrant groups like the Irish, let’s say, to this country, coming from a nation. The Hmong are an ethnic group, right?

Chia Vang:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

There’s not a Hmong, never has been a Hmong nation. Is that correct?

Chia Vang:

Not in the sense that we know nation states, no.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Right. How has that been important, if it has been, in Hmong history, that fact?

Chia Vang:

It is so phenomenal how nation building has been a very important, core value that Hmong people hold. But there had never been a nation state that’s called Hmong country anywhere. But it is really tied to a very strong ethnic identity.

Greg Kaster:

Identity, yeah.

Chia Vang:

Yeah, based on a very strong social cultural system of how we relate to each other. So, what’s interesting is that we’ve never had a nation, but no matter where we exist, those ethnic ties are so strong.

I think it’s precisely, when you and I had a conversation about last names. Vang is a very common last name. Yang, too, but Yang is also a Chinese last name, Korean, and others as well. But Vang and some of the Hmong last names, those are our clan names. The clans are how our social structure is, and it’s how we are born into a clan. It is how we are unified. It is also how we’re divided.

So, you’re born into a clan. You can be adopted into a clan, which is just our last name. So, the 18 or so last names, that defines who we are as an ethnic group. So no matter where I am traveling to, whether I’m sitting in the mountains in northern Vietnam, or I’m having coffee with a Hmong woman in Argentina, or sitting in French Guyana, there’s that ethnic tie that people just treat each other as family.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all fascinating to me. Is this related to your, I think it’s ongoing, your ongoing work on southeast Asian identity in the global south?

Chia Vang:

Yes, because we know a lot about refugee resettlement in the global north; in North America and also Europe. But there were small populations that were sent to the global south, in South America. We don’t know much about what happened to them because they’re such small populations.

So, since 2015, I have been conducting research in French Guyana, in Argentina. I’m actually in the writing stage of a new monograph on identity and belonging in the global south. So, really looking at the refugees who were sent, about 266 families from Laos that were sent to Argentina, including 25 Hmong. Then the rest were ethnic Lao families.

Then I studied the 1,000 Hmong individuals who were sent to French Guyana. Now they have three villages that were very much like a village, temperature, climate wise, like in southeast Asia. So, they have rebuilt their lives, but they live in more self contained villages. Even little children, they all go to school. It’s a French department, so they all speak French, but they also all speak Hmong.

So, it’s a very different context. Then the small number of families in Argentina, boy. The original refugee says the number is decreasing every moment as we speak, with the elders like my parents generation. Then there are Argentinian born Hmong who speak no Hmong. So, I need interpreters to speak with them.

Greg Kaster:

That is so fascinating.

Chia Vang:

Yeah, it’s really interesting.

Greg Kaster:

I’m just curious, how much interaction, whether it’s, I don’t mean necessarily [inaudible 00:45:14] person, obviously, but is there, between Hmong in let’s say a place like Argentina, and Saint Paul? Are they completely unknown to one another?

Chia Vang:

I think just the explosion of social media, that has enabled people to connect with more people across the globe. Even if they don’t know people personally, social media makes people think or feel that they know what’s going on in other parts of the world.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Chia Vang:

Even if they’ve never been there.

So, I know that the families who went to Argentina, this is the saddest part. That’s why my book is called The Sorrow of Displacement. It is precisely through interviews and archival research, I found that even some of the families who agreed to go to Argentina, when the Argentinian government came to interview them in 1979, 1980, they actually said, “You’re going to South America.”

This is summarizing one person’s reflection, but his parents thought they were going to the southern part of America, United States. So, they thought they were going to the same country, it’s just North and South America. They get to South America, to Argentina and they realize, “Oh. We’re not in America.”

It’s things like that, that is so heart wrenching. Then, those that have families in the U.S. have already been, before 9/11, many of them were sponsored their families to the United States. So, if people have immediate family members, they have all come to the U.S. The ones who are there now are stuck there. That’s why they’re still there.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That is heart wrenching. Wow, what a powerful title, The Sorrow of Displacement, for your forthcoming book.

I have to say, I had never thought about, I’m sure most, Hmong people in connection with Argentina or French Guinea. I mean, no way, never even occurred to me. That, and you also remind us. Really, a lot of your work is based on oral history, right, interviews. I want to talk a little bit about that with regard to your work on Hmong pilots. Which again, for me, when I think of Hmong, one of the things I think about, of course, is the war. Then the CIA’s secret war in the 1950s, and Hmong airmen. I guess, were they all men? I assume they were.

Chia Vang:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yes.

Greg Kaster:

Trained by the CIA and the Air Force. You’ve written two books, right? One is an oral history of the fighter pilots. Then this other book that I mention in the intro, which I have not read, which I want to read, sounds fantastic. About the pilot who was shot down in, what early ’70s and held as a prisoner.

But tell us a little bit about that work. What are some of the main themes in those books?

Chia Vang:

So, the reason I, you’re a historian, so you know. I don’t have to tell people. But when we’re researching and trying to tell stories, often we go to the archives. Right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Chia Vang:

But when you go to the archives, some of the people that I want to understand, I want to learn from, and whose stories I think need to be told as well, those stories are not in the archives. Right?

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

Chia Vang:

So that’s why my research, oral history is such an integral part of all my research, because I love archives generally, too. I do. I love talking to dead people, meaning that I love to read letters. I love to read all these other things that people left, and newspaper clippings, and all these things. I call them dead people, but you know what I mean. It’s wonderful, and I can spend hours and hours in the archives.

But when I was working on my doctoral research, I went through all of these case files, the refugee case files that are actually in the immigration history resource center at the University of Minnesota. I looked at the official documents, case records of people resettling. When they came, the paperwork goes to the International Institute of Minnesota. Then eventually, they get placed at the IHRC.

I’m reading through these archival materials and there’s notes from the case workers, who talk about how these people are not being compliant. They really should work two jobs because they have this many children, and they cannot be self-sufficient in six months if they don’t do X, Y, and Z. Or they would describe a mother who seems to be dazed off. She’s not paying attention. She’s not getting it. Her English hasn’t improved at all.

So, I hear the voices of the people who are in the business of processing refugees. But I don’t hear the voices of the people who are being processed. I wonder what that woman who’s dazing off, why is she not paying attention? So oral history becomes that place where I feel like I’m also contributing.

I wasn’t a historian first. I was poli sci, and then eventually I became a historian. I just took it upon myself that all of my research projects are also a project of gathering or building my own personal archive of the research. There have been people I’ve interviewed who have died. So, no one’s going to be able to interview them.

So long story short about the pilot projects, I’m a Vietnam War historian, so I’m very, very familiar with this area. But the Hmong airmen, it’s a story that very few people have heard about. In the Hmong community, people know. People know we have a few ace pilots who became this symbolic representation of the sacrifices that our people made during the war. Such as [inaudible 00:51:40] is the most famous.

So, you grew up, you heard these stories. But no one, even the Hmong military individuals themselves that I was interviewing many, many of them. People can tell you what they did at a particular time and place, but very few could tell you these larger political and social transformations that were occurring.

So, they can tell you the micro level experiences, but the larger historical context, very few people could. So, part of all of my work is about, I’m very interested, as I have always been, about the great leaders of great nations and the decisions they made that changed the world. But I’m also very interested in the people who we think don’t have any power, but they actually exercise a lot of agency.

The wars aren’t decided in northern Laos. They’re decided in Washington, D.C., but they happened in my village. So the elders had to make decisions. When the war ended, they didn’t have to come. They could have just stayed and faced whatever consequences, but they dragged our children like us, to leave. The motivation they have, the trust, the faith of not knowing exactly where you’re going, but having this idea about any place is better than here right now, and to risk that; those are the stories that I wanted to capture in my lifetime.

When I was younger, like I told you earlier, I was interested in French political thought and European, all these-

Greg Kaster:

A lot of western, right.

Chia Vang:

Exactly. Western civilization because that’s what we learned. That’s what we had access to. Those are the only great things that we learned about. So of course, as a young person, that’s what I thought I needed to know, too. I thought if I was going to thrive, I needed to know all that. Which I think is really wonderful that I went that route. Then now, I have shifted to really much more global work.

Oral history is very important to me. It’s so profound that I may now have one of the biggest oral history collections of veterans and ordinary people. When I say that, we’re all ordinary in our own ways, but I’m talking about women who left their villages to go and join this nursing program that the U.S. Agency for International Development had in northern Laos, changing gender relations.

So, all these things that, until you really dig deep into these lived experiences that don’t exist in the archive, you can’t tell these stories.

Greg Kaster:

They don’t, no. Right, that history’s lost.

Chia Vang:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

No longer, thanks to you.

Chia Vang:

And that’s the joy.

Greg Kaster:

You answered one of the questions I was thinking about which is, you must have a huge archive. Are you depositing these interviews anywhere, or are they just with you for now?

Chia Vang:

They’re with me for now in three different storage places. I get really nervous. I had one experience in graduate school where I lost an interview.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, no.

Chia Vang:

So I had to go back, because I didn’t have time to save it. So, I had to go back and ask the person. He was so kind. I re-interviewed him, but there’s something that is special about that first interview.

Greg Kaster:

I can imagine.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. So, now it’s saved in three different areas, and I have a storage at the university for all my research files. I do plan, at some point in time, if I ever do myself a favor to take more time off. When I’m on sabbatical, I want to write another book.

So, I do plan to archive these. I transcribed a lot of them. Some are actually video tape, too, not just audio.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. Yeah. I will give them to some archive, but I want it to be in a place where it’s accessible to people. I don’t want somebody just to hold them, my material, so that no one can go in.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that would be a shame. Boy, this work is so interesting because, obviously, you’re much more familiar with the historiography of the Vietnam War than I am. I don’t teach a course on that.

But just the little I know, as you mentioned, you had this idea of the decisions coming out of Washington. But no, there are other centers of decision making by people in power, but then also ordinary people on the ground, and not just in Vietnam itself. But Hmong people as well exercising agency and affecting outcomes during that long, long awful war.

Were these pilots, how were these pilots recruited by the CIA? Were they recruited from villages, off the farm, or were they more elite Hmong?

Chia Vang:

This was something where, because of all the stereotypes, all the characterizations of Hmong people that have been available to Westerners at that time, was that we were primitive. We were uneducated. We didn’t know how to read and write.

But this program was very much, it wasn’t just for Hmong. It was a program to train local, meaning Lao and other American allies or collaborators, how to fly these aircraft, so that they can provide air support. Especially because, in Laos, the U.S. wasn’t supposed to be there. Right?

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Chia Vang:

So American pilots bombed the area for the course of the war, but they were high up.

So, these Hmong pilots were part of the secret operation that the CIA orchestrated in collaboration with General Vang Pao, the Hmong general who was a part of the Royal Army, but he worked directly with the CIA, too.

So, very long story short, they needed, the Hmong soldiers who were on the ground, they needed close air support. A lot of American planes, they flew very high up. They dropped bombs. They did massive damage, but they didn’t always get the enemy. So, it was these T28 pilots that became legendary, in terms of supporting ground troops.

So, the Hmong who were recruited to train, they were not the uneducated farmer. They were actually the elite of the time. So yes, many of them mostly have middle school education, but at that time, that was the highest. Some of them were literate in French and/or Lao. So eventually, they all learned English.

But they were the elite of the time. They were educated, with air quotes, educated. Of course, they didn’t have college degrees, but that’s the group of men. 32 men graduated. 32 Hmong men graduated from the program and three flew helicopters. Then a couple others, other transport aircraft.

The ones who were T28 qualified, they flew. Sometimes they fly so close to the ground in these older aircraft, too. The topography, and Laos is so foggy at moments where you’re flying, it’s clear. Before you know it, it’s cloudy. So, aircraft malfunction. Accidents have claimed many people’s lives, in addition to be in fire.

But half of them were killed in action, so that’s a pretty-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s captured. I was just going to say, that’s captured in the title of your oral histories of the pilots, which I think the book is, Fly Until You Die.

Chia Vang:

Fly Until You Die, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. There you go.

Now briefly, what about the one pilot you’ve done, your most recent book is about him, Pao Yang. What is his story? He was shot down and then imprisoned by, was he imprisoned by the communists in Laos?

Chia Vang:

He’s in the larger book about the Hmong pilots, too. As a scholar, the book came out from Oxford University in 2019. It’s really special for me.

But when I interviewed these men, and they were not just Hmong. The book is about the Hmong pilots, and then also it’s about the CIA, Bill Lair, the CIA operative who orchestrated this project from the beginning. I interviewed him before he died and I spent a weekend with him in Texas. There were other intelligence officers, instructor pilots who trained the Hmong. So, I interviewed those who were still alive. That’s why I travel all over the country to interview them.

But Pao’s story is one of the Hmong surviving pilot stories, but everyone’s story is compelling. Everyone’s story is heart wrenching. Everyone’s story is worthwhile. I also include some of the widows of the pilots who were killed in action, but Pao’s story is so profound in the way that he was shot down and everybody thought he died. He had a wife and a baby, and everybody thought he died because he couldn’t be rescued. So, his pilot friends at that particular moment saw the enemy dragged him because he parachuted and he landed, and the enemy surrounded him, so they thought he died.

Then, long story short, he was captured. He was taken to a prison camp near the Lao/Vietnamese border. But when the war ended, when POWs were returned, if they were returned, Pao didn’t come back. Pao didn’t come back, so everybody thought he died. In Hmong culture, when somebody dies, and after you do the official funeral, and then you have another event to free their soul. You release their soul so that you give them permission to go and be reincarnated.

So, Pao didn’t come back. His family had done all those ceremonies for him already. When the country fell, they left. His parents, and wife, and child left. Then he was imprisoned until 1976. Then eventually, he was still under surveillance, but he was allowed to go to work. He and these former prisoners they were considered, because they’re pilots and they inflicted so much harm to the enemy, they were considered the highest crime.

So, he was there until ’76. Then when he was eventually released and allowed to frequent in the villages, and eat, and I don’t know, eventually network with other Hmong people, and then he escaped. But the tragedy of this story is that his wife left. She thought he died. She remarries, comes to America.

Then, when he got out of prison, just before he escaped, he met a young woman whose father knew Pao. I think sometimes they don’t always say this to me in the interviews, but I think that the parent was trying to save their daughter. So, Pao married her and they escaped. Then they get to the United States. He and his first wife had never had closure, because they both remarried.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Chia Vang:

So it’s one of the most, I call it, you live parallel lives. You’re there, but you can never, there’s never been closure. They can’t have closure.

Greg Kaster:

I can’t, even as I try, I really can’t imagine what that would be like.

Chia Vang:

Yeah, so that’s why.

Greg Kaster:

I’m picturing this as a movie, too. Hang on. Write a script. It could be a movie, seriously.

Chia Vang:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That’s a powerful, and he’s still living?

Chia Vang:

Yup. Yup, he’s still living. Here I am, I’ve been researching about the book. I went to the state, three separate, longer interviews with him. I stayed at his house, just to get to know him, and his second wife, and their children, and just really understand how they have made sense of their lives. I interviewed his first wife.

So, the book has become a very, if he could write this book, he would himself. But because he can’t, and here I am, this historian writing his book. As you will see in the book, when I finished, I went back and read every word to him after my many interviews, and telephone calls, and the formal interview, and the informal conversations. I went back and I read every word to him, to make sure it was what he wanted.

Because I write some historical context, and a little bit of analysis here and there, too, I wanted to make sure he was okay. Some things are not beautiful. There’s very critical things in the book, and sad parts, and family dynamics, and hurt, and all these different things, too.

So, when I finished it, I read it to him. Then I decided to give him co-authorship. So, it’s with Pao Yang. That’s how I ended up with the byline.

Greg Kaster:

That’s great. That’s powerful. This also reminds me, I want to talk a little bit about women, your work on Hmong women. But before that, this reminds me. What is it like to be working as an academic, but also as an insider? Do you feel a tension when you’re doing that?

Chia Vang:

Yeah, a lot. Because I think that the biggest, I don’t know if it’s a challenge. But I think there is this, for all of us as scholars, people want you to have objectivity. You’re supposed to be not emotional with these things. We’re supposed to be objective and just tell it like it is.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. Right.

Chia Vang:

But we’re human beings. Especially this kind of work that I’m doing, yes, reading a letter in the archive is different. It’s important, too. But hearing somebody reflect about the day their son was killed and the news came to them, or a brother 45 years later telling the story about running to the airfield, and seeing his brother’s head hanging down, and speaking as though it just happened. He’s seeing it right now, describing it to me.

They are very emotionally charged interviews. I think the hardest part is that if I were not an insider, meaning I’ve never been a pilot. That’s a fact. I’ve never been a military person. That’s a fact, too. But when you are listening to people’s journey, their life stories, and the very fact that although I haven’t been those identities, my family also were parts of that larger story.

So, their stories about escape, their stories about the refugee camp, their stories about the challenges of rebuilding their lives in America, they’re not just their story. They’re part of my story, too, and Hmong peoples’ stories, and immigrant stories. So, when I’m listening to some of these stories, and I have to take care of myself. I know that if an outsider interviewing, asking the same questions, and maybe hearing the same stories, I think as human beings, when someone is in pain and they’re suffering, if you don’t feel any empathy, you don’t have to feel exactly the way they do, but if you don’t feel their pain, I think you’re not human.

But when your story is so intimately tied to some of these stories, and the burden on you to tell these stories in a way that they can live, and they can be important. Because as we know, whose story matters are the stories that are documented.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

Chia Vang:

If it’s not documented, then it’s almost as if people didn’t live, didn’t exist.

Greg Kaster:

That’s so well said. Also, I’m picking up on your point about empathy. I think even as an outsider, let’s put it this way, any good historian needs to have empathy, and be able to empathize with their subjects, even if they’re also repelled sometimes by their subjects.

Wow. I could keep going on about that, but let’s focus on women. That is so interesting because that’s another stereotype, I would think, the submissive Hmong woman. But your work has demolished that myth. Talk a little bit about that if you would, please.

Chia Vang:

The idea for that claiming place edited volume came from a number of us. When you look at the literature, it is very much a deficit base, that people only like to study problems. It’s almost always writing about these marginalized groups as though they’re just problems to be fixed-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s a good point.

Chia Vang:

… and they don’t have any agency.

So, our book does not dismiss that. We don’t say, “That doesn’t exist.” What we’re saying is that, let’s unpack this and look at how Hmong social structure, despite the fact that the dominant narrative is that Hmong culture is patriarchal. Women don’t have any power. Women don’t have decision making. But on the contrary, there are specific elements of Hmong culture practices that are, in fact, established to protect women. Women are the ties to the ways in which people relate to each other in our very important [client 01:10:12] system.

When we think about war time, women’s lives were changed completely, with so many men, fathers, sons went to war, like in all societies. It’s not just Hmong.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right, exactly. Right.

Chia Vang:

Men went to war. Women have to do their job, and all the work that their husbands or fathers did. So their lives were changed as well.

So, part of what we wanted to do is to unpack that. It tells a more complicated story than just the ones that say, “Oh, Hmong refugees. Poor Hmong women. They don’t have any rights. They can’t decide for themselves.” We didn’t want to just continue to perpetuate that. We acknowledge it, but then, how do you explain the fact that some of the most successful Hmong people in the United States happen to be women? Some of the pioneers.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, and you were one of them. You were one of them.

Chia Vang:

Some of the pioneers, we have a Hmong woman who’s a NASA engineer. We have CEOs and all these. But for those of us who actually have done well in our own careers, we really talk about family, our culture, and the foundation that we have. Those are not deficit. They’re strengths and they’re assets. They’re cultural capitals that-

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Chia Vang:

Yeah. It’s part of, that’s why when we finish our degrees, 400 people came to my graduation, and I invited maybe three of them. Everybody else was my parents and my brothers.

So, it’s that communal. Whether it’s, it is really important to understand that we have to tell multiple stories. There’s so many different sides to the story. We all may be in the same place at the same time, but you and I know it. We will interpret a singular event so differently, depending on our role.

So, that’s what gives me joy about this work.

Greg Kaster:

It’s all great, great stuff. I think the point about not approaching it from a deficit based framework is incredibly important. I’m thinking about also, with work done on the history of slavery in this country.

Chia Vang:

Exactly.

Greg Kaster:

And the way you could say, “Well, enslaved people are either simply victims, or they were heroic resisters.” How about some complexity in between those two extremes? The way you frame family as “cultural capital” just super, super important.

Chia Vang:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

We’re out of time. I want to keep going so badly, but we can’t. We’re up against a clock here.

But before we say goodbye, I wonder if you could reflect a bit on what it is about Gustavus that has equipped you, stayed with you over the years? In other words, to make a case for Gustavus.

Chia Vang:

I feel like when I was a student at Gustavus, this is how I approached everything. As we mentioned earlier, I was involved in so many different things. Even I was on judicial board, looking at all my peers and the crazy things they were doing.

I think Gustavus was, I thought that was, I didn’t know exactly how it all came together. Maybe sometimes I’m a little old fashioned, that I think things work out exactly the way they’re supposed to work out. Sometimes it’s not so much about my good planning, but it’s that, that’s meant to be, for me to be in those spaces at those particular moments so that I can have a certain kind of experience.

So, I think the liberal arts education that I received at Gustavus, the ability to just be in, and I think living on campus was so important because it allowed me to be in a space where I was totally responsible for learning, in that I was responsible for, also as I said earlier, for creating the path that I wanted for myself. But the instructors that I had, they also really challenged me to find a place for myself.

I say that because, for example, one time I took, I think, a racism and sexism course. There was an assignment. We were reading Peggy McIntosh’s piece on white privilege. The instructors, the assignment was for us to write about what it’s like to have white privilege. I went to the instructor afterwords and I said, “You know, I can’t write about that because I don’t have white privilege.”

She goes, “Oh, my God, Chia. Of all the good things I do, I’m so sorry.” There were three students, three of us that were non-white. So, we found a way to allow me to still complete the assignment, and I think for the other students, too. But my point is that, that ability to be in that space, the smaller classrooms, and I really mean this. I loved being able to engage with my professors.

Chris Gilbert would bake brownies for us. It was just, the learning, it was so much fun because you’re learning these really serious topics, but you’re in the space where people are actually treating you as an individual who was sort of in the making, or becoming who you want to become. Those are so foundational for me.

Gustavus enabled me to study abroad. That, I consider one of the most defining moments of my life, is being able to spend a year in Europe, and travel all over to these great places that I have read about, and then coming back. I was a CF or RA. That in itself, was also an experience that you can’t tread lightly on because the responsibilities, the ability to be in, I was thinking about the quote that you just read about me in 1993. I can’t remember exactly why I said it was so hard to be a minority student.

But I can say that because I was one of the very few minority students, I was on the videos for recruitment and all of these things. But you know, Greg, I don’t approach it as just being a token. I think the people who invited me to be in these different spaces, they also hoped that I would contribute.

So, this has been my motto all my life is that, even if I’m invited to be in certain places as a token, I’m going to be the best person possible to contribute to that space and make it mine, too. That it’s not just theirs, that I have to become a part of. But everything I do, it’s about, “How do I show you exactly the way I am and then take different parts that are good for me and also spread a little bit about my own thinking, and values, and ideas to other people?”

Greg Kaster:

Yes. That, for me, is what equity and inclusion are really all about. Not just, “Hi, here is Chia Vang, a Hmong student or colleague.” But really, what are you adding? How are you enriching the space? I like the way you use that word and think about your education at Gustavus as a space, and your wonderful phrase, “taking total responsibility,” where you’re totally responsible for your own education.

I know what you mean, the professors were there, as well obviously, as you’ve said. But that is really, that is certainly, when I think about my undergraduate work, what I loved about college, and even miss about it, in some ways.

But thank you so much for all of this conversation. It has been an absolute pleasure. I don’t think we ever even spoke when you were at Gustavus, but I was aware that you were there. As I said, I was certainly aware of the Asian American club. There’s so much I’ve learned preparing for the podcast and hearing you today.

I urge everyone to read, certainly people in Minnesota should read your book, Hmong Minnesota, if they haven’t already. Then others, especially the book, Hmong America, which I think is really, really an outstanding work.

Thank you so much. Best of luck on the current project. We’ll look forward to reading that, as well. You’re not teaching this summer, are you?

Chia Vang:

No, I’m not teaching at all, so it’s a little break.

Greg Kaster:

Good. Happy summer.

Chia Vang:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Same here.

Chia Vang:

Same to you.

Greg Kaster:

Happy summer, Chia. It’s been a pleasure. Take good care.

Chia Vang:

Thank you.

Greg Kaster:

Bye-bye.

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Aiken and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing. Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

###

Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

Leave a Reply