Chia Youyee Vang | Glendale, WI
Then in eighth grade science class, we had to dissect a frog and I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. But I loved to read and enjoyed school. Social studies, civics, and language arts were my favorite classes. When I was in middle school, I wrote in my journal that I would get my PhD by the time I was 25. I had all these lofty goals for myself. Since I didn’t actually know anybody that had a PhD, I didn’t know that it was unrealistic to get a PhD by 25, but I did get it at 35.
I was born in Laos in 1971. My family was part of the refugee resettlement program after the Vietnam War. We moved to Minnesota in 1980, landing in the Twin Cities on April 13. My father’s youngest brother was already there, so we followed him. I grew up in the Twin Cities, except for one year when my family lived in Winona for my dad to take a farm training program. My parents had been farmers in Laos and rented farmland about an hour from St. Paul. During my teenage years, my siblings and I harvested vegetables in the summer and worked with my parents to sell the produce at the farmer’s market. If you go to farmer’s markets now in Madison and other cities, you will see a lot of Hmong farmers. Back in the 1980s, we were among the very first Hmong families to sell at the farmer’s market in the Twin Cities.
When I was much younger, I was interested in history, but I did not study history as a student. I studied political science and international relations. At one point in time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but after high school I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Since I was interested in political science and foreign policy, I thought I would eventually work for an international organization like the United Nations.
My junior year in college I studied in France. I was very interested in European political history. I traveled to 13 European countries, including a train ride from Paris to Prague all by myself. I just hopped on a train and went. I didn’t come from a privileged background. My family was very poor financially, but I grew up in an environment of love and support, which money can’t buy. My parents gave my siblings and me a stable foundation and huge support for education. They would do anything for us to get an education. All my brothers and sister went to college. I decided to get my PhD in American studies, which I completed in 2006.
I like that American studies is interdisciplinary–it’s history, political science, and a variety of other disciplines as well. When I was younger it was considered more important to learn about European and American history. That was the history we had access to as American students. By the time I went back to school to get my PhD, I knew exactly what I wanted to research and write about. I was interested in studying the history of my people.
So, I started studying refugee resettlement policies. I have researched Southeast Asians, in particular, what happened to refugees from the Vietnam War. Those who resettled in the United States and those who resettled across the globe. In 2006 the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s history department was looking for someone to teach Southeast Asian history, so I was recruited here. I then built on student advocacy work to create a Hmong Diaspora Studies program. This academic program is very important because Asian American students can see themselves in the curriculum. I didn’t see myself in the curriculum when I was a student. Everything I’ve learned about Hmong history I had to learn from outside of school. Now I have the opportunity to create a place where Hmong students, in particular, can see that their history matters too.
I also interviewed former CIA operatives, intelligence officers who worked with the Hmong during that time and they helped me understand how they trained the local pilots. But it’s the Hmong men who helped me understand what happened during the war. They were brought to Thailand to be trained as pilots and then were sent back to support the ground troops, to be America’s foot soldiers in Laos. These men were mostly from rural areas, but they all had about a middle school education, so they were literate. They had to learn how to speak English and how to fly a plane. I am very interested in what happens to the people who are caught up in wars. The people who don’t make the political decisions to go to war, but the war happens in their neighborhoods, villages, and towns. From these interviews with fighter pilots, I wrote the book, ‘Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War’.
I love the information I can find in an archive. The letters, photographs, notes, and other artifacts you find in an archive tell a story. But the voices of the people that I research, the refugees, are not there. My work is to incorporate their oral histories into archives. I interview, record, and transcribe the stories of refugees so they are available for others. I sit in small towns with Hmong people who moved there to reestablish their lives and hear incredibly powerful stories. One man talked about the day he saw his brother who was killed in action, his head hanging from the plane. He was crying during the interview as though it just happened. I captured it on a recording and now his oral history is part of the Hmong history archive. Often the people I interview will give me photos from their photo albums for the archive. Sharing the videos and photos from people’s personal collections has been very impactful for my students; to hear these stories first-hand.
I’ve collected so many materials over the last decade. For example, when a refugee applies to resettle in the U.S there are a lot of documents that are part of the application process. My own family still has our resettlement artifacts. I have a bag filled with copies of our plane tickets from when we resettled to Minnesota from Laos. You can see how much was paid for each person and the amount that my parents had to repay. My parents had to sign a promissory note, that after six months of being in the U.S. they would start repaying these travel fees. I use these images to help students understand the reality of resettlement and to counter this perception that refugees get a free ride, which we don’t. Although my teaching interests are broader, I developed the Hmong History, Culture and Contemporary Life course at UW Milwaukee and use the archival materials I collect and U.S. government documents. Refugee resettlement policy has changed so much over time, my family’s experience in 1980 is not how it is now.
When I was asked to join the Wisconsin Humanities Council board it felt like a natural fit for me. As a board member, I got to meet so many different people who care about the humanities from around the state. I am interested in capturing stories, gathering all kinds of materials, preserving them, and helping to make sense of them so other people can enjoy them as well. My observation is that, if it is not archived and shared, then it is almost as if it didn’t exist. One of the parts that I enjoyed about being on the Humanities Council board was giving grant money to people with so many wonderful ideas. Learning about people’s ideas and what matters to people in their own communities was so impactful. It was great to give money to groups to help them realize their dreams.
In 2009 I returned to Laos, where I was born, for the first time. I brought a group of students as part of a history class that I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The first trip was a teaching experiment. Thereafter, I took a group of students to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand every other year.
Most of my family from my mother’s side stayed in Laos. They were not able to escape after the Vietnam War. During the trip I have two American students stay with a family for three or four days and then we travel to a new location. Some of the homestays we do in Laos are with my mother’s relatives. Almost every single trip there have been Hmong students who still have family back in Laos. I helped several of them reconnect with their family. There were a few times that their family members lived in the same village as my uncles. So, it’s really exciting.
I believe that the stories of people who do not have the most power are important. It brings me tremendous satisfaction to gather and tell these stories. I know this is a cliché to say, but it is true for me. I didn’t have a hero who looked like me when I was growing up. So, I said, ‘You know, I’m going to be my own hero.’
Vietnam War veterans in Sheboygan and Milwaukee along with one Hmong veteran are featured in ‘Rescue: Saving Lives from the 2010 Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories’ documentary. These interviews start at the 41:13 minute mark.
“Hmong families began arriving in the United States in 1975 as refugees of the Secret War in Laos. Today, about 4.5% of the global Hmong population lives in the United States, with just over 3,000 residing in the City of Eau Claire alone.” To learn more about the Hmong community check out this Chippewa Valley Museum exhibit.