Hmong Americans fled Asia as refugees, now they are caught in the middle of Minneapolis

Hmong Americans originating from Laos do not fit cleanly into the US' broad racial categories. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - They came as refugees from the jungles of Laos, an ethnic minority allied with American forces during the war in Vietnam. Beginning in the winter of 1975, thousands settled in frigid central Minnesota, and eventually became business owners, teachers and police officers - their versions of the American dream.

They are Hmong Americans, and in the week since Mr George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, they have found themselves in the middle of a national conflagration over race that was bigger than many have seen in their lifetimes as Americans.

One of the police officers who stood by as Mr Floyd was pressed to the ground is Hmong American. So is the wife of Derek Chauvin, the officer who put his knee on Mr Floyd's neck, who last week filed for a divorce. A number of the businesses burned in the looting belonged to Hmong Americans. The result has been a fraught descent into the nation's battles over race and equality and a sense that, whether they want to or not, they have been drawn into the conflict.

"We came to this country with nothing," said Ms Gloria Wong, 50, whose building in University Avenue in St Paul was badly damaged. "I have been working my whole life for my building. Now it just takes one or two persons to trash it. I feel very down right now. My heart is just aching all over."

Ms Wong said she had a fondness for police officers: Her uncle was one of the first Hmong Americans to become one in the 1980s. But when she saw the video, she thought that Officer Tou Thao, who stood by during Mr Floyd's death, had acted wrongly.

"I thought he had neglected what he went to law enforcement school for," Ms Wong said. Still, she understood why he had attended. His family, she said, was also striving.

"They were trying to work hard and rise up and have the American dream too," she said.

Hmong Americans do not fit cleanly into the country's broad racial categories. Because so many came as impoverished refugees, they are more likely to be poor than many other Asian immigrants from places like China and India, who often have specialised degrees.

An ethnic minority in Laos, they were recruited by the United States to help disrupt supply lines and fight against communists in South-east Asia. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, they settled around the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Fresno, California, starting out with very little as they tried to establish roots.

Mr Chy Nou Lee, a deputy sheriff in the Ramsey County Sheriff's Department, said he grew up in public housing. Mr Lee said his father had fought alongside Americans, a role he was proud of, so the career choice of police officer seemed natural.

Becoming a police officer "kind of extends from the older community back in Laos", said Mr Lee, the highest-ranking Hmong American officer in Minnesota. "If you work for the military or government, you have huge stature. That mentality is built into the culture." It was something more too, he said: A way to feel less like an outsider looking in.

"It's starting to say, 'Hey, we have a voice in this society,' " he said.

Mr Lee, who is 37, said he did not know Mr Thao, the Hmong officer who stood by during Mr Floyd's death, and did not want to debate his actions.

But he added: "I want to see justice brought for Mr. Floyd."

Mr Lee was born in the United States. For newer immigrants, the week's events were even more bewildering.

Mr Kongsue Xiong, 46, a Hmong business owner in St Paul whose building was damaged last week, said the burning reminded him of his childhood in Laos. He said he hid in the jungle as a child and saw people dying, and communist forces burning villages. He came to the US in 1992 alone. His father had been killed in the violence and his mother, who had survived, had remarried and did not want to immigrate.

"What happened to George Floyd is not right," he said. "But burning businesses is not related to the death. Two things are going on at the same time and you are just confused."

He said the past week has made him "as scared of Black Lives Matter as of the police".

Hmong Americans are the single largest group of Asians in Minnesota, with a population of up to 90,000. In St Paul, Asians make up about 12 per cent of the population, slightly less of than African Americans, at about 13 per cent.

The community is divided on how it sees the week's events, people said. Younger people tend to view it from the perspective of Black Lives Matter, saying that the outrage over police violence that had driven protesters into the streets was understandable. Older immigrants seemed more likely to emphasise the loss of property and the pain of watching a cherished small business destroyed.

In St Paul, a lot of the damage was concentrated in University Avenue, the centre of Hmong business life, an area that had been transformed since the 1970s into a bustling shopping district.

Ms Mai Kou Vang, 42, a liquor store owner who lost all her merchandise to looting, said she felt like she had to choose a side - the protesters or immigrant business owners.

"But either side we choose," she said, "it hurts us."

The events come after several months in which Asians had experienced acts of bigotry related to the coronavirus. In May, an African American youth kicked a Hmong woman who was sitting at a commuter rail station in St Paul in the face, while another recorded with his phone and then posted on social media.

Ms Wong said her son, who had just graduated from high school and was working delivering groceries, had been harassed by customers because he is Asian.

Hmong Americans have also been victims of police violence. In 2006, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Mr Fong Lee, 19, whom he suspected was at that time. A jury later exonerated the officer.

On Sunday, Mr Lee's mother appeared at a protest in Minneapolis to encourage the Hmong community to stand with their black neighbours.

But the past week has also caused pain for some Hmong Americans that is likely to linger.

Mr Rob Yang, 44, said Thursday (May 28) was by far the strangest day of his life in the United States, since he arrived when he was three. He stood watching in the afternoon sun as dozens of people walked into his shoe store and helped themselves to every last scrap of his merchandise. A black woman who tried to stop them was ignored. A white woman who tried was punched in the face.

He said he had felt angry at the death of Mr Floyd. He had posted about it on Facebook. But on Thursday he stood there, numb, unable to move away.

"You know how people say, when you are about to die, things flash in front of your eyes?" he said. "I was thinking how hard I worked to get the store open and just how much work it was to live the American dream, you know?"

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