When I arrived in the Twin Cities for a new job in September 1987, I found an apartment on St. Paul’s East Side overlooking Swede Hollow, once the crowded, unsanitary home to thousands of Scandinavian immigrants.
They knew little English and held few resources beyond children and dreams, but after a generation or two they had risen to claim places in the offices, professions, society and government of Minnesota.
In 1987, my St. Paul neighbors included immigrant families from the highlands of Laos and refugee camps in Thailand: thousands of Hmong people, including many who had fought alongside U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War. They had started arriving in Minnesota in the mid-1970s, settling mostly together, by extended family and clan, in St. Paul.
By the time I arrived a decade later, they – like the Swedes and other European immigrants before them – had begun to climb out of the hollows. Starting with self-help organizations, aided by public assistance and marked by determination, they began to take their places among us.
Today, they number about 66,000 in Minnesota, the majority living in St. Paul. They have bought homes and started businesses. They have become lawyers, police officers, nurses, teachers, state legislators.
And now an Olympic gold medalist.
Gymnast Suni Lee’s paternal grandfather fought alongside U.S. troops. Her parents were children when they fled Laos and took refuge in Thailand, then came to the United States. Through the trauma of war and flight they learned resilience.
Sia Lo, a St. Paul attorney and a member of Suni Lee’s extended family, told the Star Tribune last week why her Olympic achievements were so meaningful to the Hmong community. “The Hmong here are very proud to be American,” he said. “We hope all of America is proud of Suni. What she’s achieved showcases what is possible here in the United States.”
Suni Lee’s story has me recalling Hmong people I met and wrote about during the 20 years I lived and worked among them, including Mai Neng Moua. She was 21 when I talked with her in 1995. Her kidneys had been failing, and she was struggling to persuade her family that traditional Hmong remedies would not save her. The idea of dialysis horrified her mother, who offered boiled roots instead.
With her daughter translating, Yer Moua told me why she was opposed to modern medical treatment. “I don’t really know if she’s sick. I think the doctors make her sick.” She said surgery would make her a different person, something less than daughter. Mai teared up as she translated. “This is new to me,” she said.
Mai was an aspiring writer, a poet, and her college writing teacher said she showed great promise. “You realize after reading her work that a lot is going on with this young woman,” he said.
She survived, learned to straddle the two cultures and became a celebrated writer, founder of a Hmong literary journal. In 2017, she spoke at a high school mentorship day, explaining to a Minnesota Public Radio reporter why Hmong girls need to reach beyond traditional family roles.
“I want them to give themselves the opportunity to go to college, to explore who they really are, and to grow outside of their family, to expand their horizons … to see the world as a big place.”
Like earlier waves of immigrants, Hmong adults found themselves an unsettled generation, I wrote in 1988. “Suspended between two cultures, missing much of the old and baffled but changed by the new, they feel rootless, diminished, often forced to rely on their children as go-betweens. Ole and Lena would know the feeling.”
I’ve watched as something similar has happened here in Grand Forks, first with refugees from Southeastern Europe, then with the Bhutanese and more recently with refugees from Somalia. No Olympic medalists yet, but they have bought homes, started businesses, become lawyers and accountants and medical professionals and teachers – and U.S. citizens, adding the beauty and experience of their backgrounds to the mosaic that is America.
One of our newest citizens, Warren Sai, this week celebrated taking the oath of allegiance with a U.S. flag draped over his shoulders – as they do in the Olympics – and declared, “I’m a French Black man” born to “a beautiful strong spiritual mother from the Caribbean islands” and a father descended from Central African warriors.
You may have enjoyed one of Warren’s special gifts to us, a sweet or savory crepe hot off the grill at the Farmers Market or at another of several local spots where he sets up.
“With passion, hard work and determination, anything is possible to achieve here,” he wrote on Facebook this week. “I love and miss my mother who is in France … but I’m also happy to wake up every day and live a blessing with all my people. Much love for this country, and God bless America.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.