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At 3 a.m. on Thursday, the daughter of Hmong refugees awoke to the buzzing of her alarm clock.
Mai Vang climbed out of bed, made herself a cup of tea and sat down in front of her laptop.
For the next three hours, while many of her Sacramento friends and neighbors were still asleep, Vang anxiously watched fellow Hmong American Sunisa Lee vie for the most prestigious title in her sport. There were as many tears rolling down Vang’s cheeks as Lee’s when the 18-year-old gymnast clinched the gold medal in the Olympic all-around competition.
“This is history,” Vang, a Sacramento city councilwoman, told Yahoo Sports. “In my lifetime, I never would have imagined seeing someone who looks like me on the screen competing in the Olympics. It was important for me to make sure I got a chance to witness our first Olympian winning a medal.”
Celebrations like Vang’s were the norm in Hmong American households in California, the Upper Midwest and beyond. A community that has often felt oppressed or invisible erupted with joy at seeing Lee emerge from Simone Biles’ shadow and go from the first Hmong American to make the Olympics to the group’s first gold medalist.
So many people in Lee’s hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota wanted to watch her compete that her family rented a venue in nearby Oakdale and threw a break-of-dawn viewing party. Nearly 300 supporters, many wearing “Team Suni” T-shirts, clapped whenever she came on screen and let out a mighty roar when she clinched gold.
Halfway across the country in Fresno, California, a Hmong American marketing director awoke to a barrage of notifications on his phone. David Lee screamed and then roused his wife and in-laws by yelling, “Wake up! Wake up! Suni won!”
“You grow up thinking, ‘A Hmong Olympian? Yeah right, that would never be possible’” David Lee told Yahoo Sports. “So to actually see this happen, it’s extremely inspirational.”
Who are the Hmong?
The Hmong (pronounced muhng) are a people from China and Southeast Asia who fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Their guerilla army guided U.S. bombing missions, rescued downed pilots and choked off enemy supply lines, saving American lives at the expense of thousands of their own.
When the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973, the Hmong were left behind and scrambled to find refuge from war and genocide. Some reached America, only to endure culture shock, poverty and discrimination.
Maykao Hang fled Laos with her parents as a toddler and arrived in a low-income neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota in 1976. At that time, most Minnesotans weren’t familiar with the Hmong. A few weren’t very welcoming.
“I remember walking down the streets of St. Paul and having people tell me to go home to my country,” Hang, the dean of the St. Thomas University college of health, told Yahoo Sports. “I was chased and beaten because I was a Hmong kid on playgrounds and in public housing. I was denied opportunities in so many places.”
The Hmong refugees who first came to the U.S. typically struggled financially. Many spoke no English and had little formal education. Skills that they forged in their agrarian society did not translate to urban America.
There often wasn’t enough money in those days for Hmong families to enroll their kids in youth sports. And the few Hmong families that did manage to save up enough cash typically signed their sons up for sports and insisted their daughters help with housework.
“I did not have the opportunity to participate in sports or after-school activities,” said Mai Moua of Hmong.org, an organization that serves the Hmong community. “As a refugee who came to the country in 1989, what was expected of me after school was to come home, do my homework, cook for the family, do my chores, go to work and then bring that money back to the family.”
That attitude is no longer as prevalent in the Hmong American community, according to Moua, but she says those gender biases “still do exist.” She is hopeful that Lee’s story inspires young Hmong girls and reminds Hmong parents of “the importance of raising children to reach their potential, regardless of their gender.”
That’s certainly the approach that Yeev Thoj and John Lee took raising Suni and her siblings in Minnesota. Instead of holding their daughter back, they encouraged Suni to dream unthinkably big for the daughter of Hmong refugees.
They drove her to practices and meets, scrounged up money for leotards and taught her to do flips on a bed. When Suni needed a balance beam at home so she could put in more practice, John took a look at the price and built her one out of wood instead.
The payoff to those long hours of work arrived this week in Tokyo when Lee stepped up in the absence of Simone Biles and emerged as one of the faces of these Olympics.
On Tuesday, Lee seamlessly replaced Biles on floor and earned the highest uneven-bars score of the night to help the U.S. salvage silver medals in the team competition. Then on Thursday, Lee answered every challenge from Rebeca Andrade and Angelina Melnikova to extend the U.S.’s streak of Olympic all-around champions.
Lee, still just a teenager, seems to appreciate the significance of her achievement to the Hmong community. She told reporters in Tokyo that her message to the Hmong was that “you can reach your dreams” and “don’t ever give up.”
Across the Pacific Ocean in Sacramento, Vang, the city councilwoman, had similar thoughts as she watched Lee’s historic victory play out on her laptop screen.
“Sunisa represents the hopes and dreams of our grandparents and our ancestors,” Vang said. “Everyone in our community is so proud and overwhelmed with joy.”
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