KaYing Yang: Social Justice Advocate, Director of Programs and Partnerships with the Coalition of Asian American Leaders, and Hmong Refugee
I came to the United States on July 8, 1976 with my parents. When we arrived, I was probably 7 years old because I was put in third grade. The journey of leaving our country of Laos took several years. The Hmong had been displaced in Laos for many years due to being recruited by the CIA to be their foot soldiers during the Vietnam War. My father and thousands of young men were part of their Special Guerilla Unit. Our elders tell us that CIA representatives told Hmong leaders that they would be provided with all of the resources necessary to fight their Secret war for the US. If Laos fell, the U.S. government promised to evacuate and relocate our families. If they won, the Hmong, who are an ethnic minority, were promised a significant role in the Lao government. Of course, it turned out to be much, much more complicated than that. When the country fell, the CIA did evacuate people. But it was General Vang Pao and his top Colonels; my father and the rest of the Hmong population were not among them.
Even at a young, tender age, I remember our family sneaking out in the middle of the night to cross the Mekong River over to Thailand, eventually moving to refugee camps where we stayed for a couple of years. We were one of the first families to leave the camps when we relocated to Columbus, Ohio.
Most of my memories are of the acculturation process in the United States. Seeing my parents lose their country and their status was traumatic. My dad was a Colonel before we left. In America, his first job was being a janitor. This is what refugees have to go through. My mother who had never been to school before learned how to use a pen and pencil for the first time in her life. We’ve been in this country for 40 years but talking about it is still so emotional. When we learn about the losses our parents experienced, their trauma becomes ours and is transferred from one generation to the next. We see this historical trauma experienced in African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and refugees.
Witnessing my parents’ inability to communicate was difficult. We didn’t speak English and there were very few Hmong in the U.S. during the 1970s. Nobody knew about our people and their sacrifices for this country, so we were treated very poorly. There was a lot of discrimination against Asians and other people who looked like my family, mainly because the Vietnam War had just ended and people were still very angry about the Vietnam War. As we know, the Vietnam War was very divisive in America. Many lives were lost and there were protests around the nation. Automatically we were seen and considered as the enemy. By my teens, I had come to understand prejudice well.
Like most refugees around the world, we were uprooted and resettled in places far from our country of origin. The communities that we were sent to were not prepared to receive us. In many ways, because of their ignorance, they retaliated against us. Though we were welcomed and accepted by some families, churches, and programs, the public didn’t really understand what was happening. All they knew was that their brothers, uncles, sons, and fathers died in a war in Southeast Asia and suddenly there were all these Indo-Chinese refugees coming from those countries. They knew about the Vietnamese and the Cambodian, but they knew almost nothing about Hmong people because we were part of the Secret War. We didn’t speak enough English to explain who we were and to defend ourselves.
Growing up I would always hear people yelling or saying under their breath “go back to where you come from.” As a child, that’s such a hard thing to hear, especially for someone like me who didn’t have much of an understanding of where I came from or who I was. It made me constantly search for my history, understand my people’s past and develop a strong sense of self. We were called “gooks” and “chinks”. Even without knowing what those words meant or their history, the tone of their voice was so hateful that you knew there was malice and insults being thrown your way. I didn’t fully understand institutional racism until I was older, but this bigotry was harsh enough to discourage and demoralize me.
We didn’t have access to civil rights organizations to understand race and subsequent racism in this country or to ask for help. All we knew was that our White neighbors and random strangers hated us. We didn’t have words to describe it any further. I grew up in the Midwest – it wasn’t until I went to college and took ethnic studies courses about African American, Hispanic and Asian American history that it all finally made some sense. In those classes, I started to understand race relations and America’s painful past. Our neighborhoods were fairly segregated, so we had few friends who were from other racially marginalized communities. There was little solidarity because nobody discussed these issues in elementary or high school. How could we learn about it unless it is provided by our educational system?
My youth was spent trying to make sense of gender inequity and sexism I saw in my own community and externally how racism and poverty added to that. The many layers of being oppressed as an immigrant, a woman, a refugee, and a person of color in this country dominated my daily life. I just knew I had to liberate myself from all of that. It was the only way for me to elevate myself and my family from a life filled with discrimination, poverty, and other traumas. So I set out to turn all of the sadness and loneliness from my childhood to become an activist in adulthood.
We have to remind Americans of their history and that the reason why refugees exist is largely because of America’s foreign policies and its role in the international community. My parents tell me to be thankful for the U.S. because they gave us the opportunity to come here, but I also think about the fact that it was the U.S. that created conditions which forced us to leave in the first place. I had the opportunity to go back to live and work for nearly ten years in Thailand and Laos. In the U.S., we call it the Vietnam War. Over there, they call it the American War. There is not a reciprocal understanding of history. Americans don’t know that those countries were trying to liberate themselves from western colonialism. History tells us that the U.S. was trying to stop the spread of Communism throughout Southeast Asian countries. There were international laws that explicitly instructed the U.S. to not intervene, yet America violated them by recruiting people like my father to secretly fight for them in a war they didn’t understand. Knowing the history from many sides empowers me to speak with conviction that we must not blame immigrants and refugees who come to this country for our problems. As a world power, we must accept the consequences of our actions and be responsible for welcoming refugees. However, to this day, we still don’t accurately teach the history of the conflicts in Southeast Asia. Each wave of refugees that come to the U.S. generates the same debate and blame.
Culturally-speaking, I was not taught to talk about my accomplishments. I would say my most modest achievement is that I have managed to survive and thrive. My parents’ dream of me having a better quality of life than them has come true, though it may not have happened in the way they expected. On the professional side, I feel I have accomplished a lot given the limited resources that I have had access to. I only have a bachelor’s degree, but I have extensive experience in the nonprofit sector, helping people through advocating and changing policies which have positively impacted Southeast Asian Americans in education and providing access to students of color to scholarships and other opportunities. I have started organizations that continue to shape policies at the national and international level. I have also influenced international decisions to allow at least 17,000 Hmong people from Thailand to settle in this country. I even had the opportunity to work in refugee camps and help with processing, serving as a role model and demonstrating to other refugees that success could look like me, too. I was able to return to my country of birth and used the education and expertise I gained in the United States to benefit people there. I also learned a great deal from my brothers and sisters in Asia. It is hard to measure that kind of success.
Success is having an impact on other people’s lives and the ability to give back to communities that have been supporting you throughout your life. The only reason I feel a sense of success is because I’ve had so many influential mentors who were looking out for me. I’m actually not successful at all compared to the traditional, conventional definition of success. I still work in the nonprofit sector which feeds my soul. I don’t have the kind of education or financial stability that my parents dreamt for me. My concept of success continuously changes as I think about my sense of happiness and life fulfillment. I am not harming other people. I’m not making the world worse, I hope. Every moment, I am thinking about how we can improve our society and eradicate the injustices that plagues us.
America is special because it has a lot of resources, both human and financial, that can support us. Having lived in Asia – in a developing country, I saw what life is like for families who have very little while also living under a government that does not necessary have the capacity to support all of its people. In the United States, there are systems set up to support who are economically disadvantage or have disabilities, whether it’s social services or the nonprofit sector or beyond. We have options that we sometimes take for granted or make the system challenging to access. In some other countries, if you are born into poverty, it is likely you will stay there for the rest of your life. Here, we have the ability to lift ourselves out of poverty if we have access to opportunities and this makes this nation incredibly unique.
Other refugees must continue to have hope and remember that there are people out here who want to help them succeed. We must approach each other as brothers and sisters so that we can support one another humanely. Our differences are assets we must embrace in each other. As an American I am excited about our racial and ethnic diversity. Our ability to harness the contributions of refugees and immigrants will make the U.S. become an even more genuine and powerful contributor to peace in the world.