Module 5. Our Story: Asian Americans


By the 21st century, bias and discrimination continued as a result of the historical racial discrimination of the previous decades. The model minority myth continues to be the way in which most Americans view the Asian American community.  While there is some truth to the success of select Asian American groups that reside in the U.S., still many reportedly experience racial discrimination and hate crimes even to this day.

By 2020, a global pandemic made the fears and anxieties of many Americans manifest in different ways, amplified, and proliferated by the internet and social media. Known as COVID-19, the virus that is believed to have originated in China has affected the Asian American community in terrible ways. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have reported countless acts of violence against Asians every day. These acts of violence range from calling names, spitting in faces, to physical violence reigned down mostly on the elderly.

Perhaps one of the more significant acts of violence occurred in Atlanta, Georgia in 2021. This incident involved a White man entering into a spa and shooting at its occupants. Eight people were killed, six of them Asian women. The shooting was the alleged result of the shooters Christian faith at odds with his sex addiction. However, the shooting exemplified another incident of anti-Asian sentiment following the tensions of the pandemic. The incident sparked protests in multiple cities against anti-Asian violence that were being reported across the country.

In the 21st century, Asian Americans remain the most ethnically diverse, rapidly growing ethnic groups in America. The Democratic Presidential nominee campaign of Andrew Yang put a prominent Asian at the forefront of American politics. A Korean foreign language film, Parasite, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards with overwhelming praise. These are signals that Asian Americans are not only active and prominent members of society but have even more room to grow in the coming years.



When Southeast Asian refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam started to flow into American cities starting in 1976 and into the 1980s, most Americans didn’t know who we were, much less what we had gone through before coming to the United States.  In many ways, we were hoping no one would know who we were. Our neighbors thought we were Chinese or Japanese – after all, all Asians look alike to them, and so we must be the same. “Are you Chinese? Are you Japanese?” they asked. We knew English enough to know those questions were about who we were, but we shook our heads, saying, “No, no.” And perhaps we could’ve told our neighbors that we were Hmong, but it would be too difficult to explain why we came to the United States. Silence was the better choice.

Another generation had to be immersed in the English language and culture before we could tell our story. Our story of survival and resilience and collaboration with the U.S. to fight communists simply had to wait. Among first-generation SE Asian college students, we felt the need to capture our own respective lived experiences from our own lenses rather than waiting for another non-SE Asian person to give us another watered-down version of our plight. Young scholars from the Cambodian and Vietnamese communities had already documented their own refugee experiences through various publications in recent years. In my case as a first-generation Hmong college student and now a professor of political science and ethnic studies, I’m compelled to provide my own version of the Hmong plight to the U.S. and secondary migration to the Central California.

Community and social dialogues among Hmong elders revealed that the first few Hmong families to move to the Central Valley, California started in Merced in 1979. From those families, words got around to relatives across the country – wherever resettlement agencies had scattered us (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Ohio, Tennessee, or Oklahoma) – that California’s Central Valley had fertile land for farming, the only method the Hmong had been familiar with in making a living. We came from the mountainous terrains in Laos but found the flat valley attractive, serving as a magnetic device that continued to pull Hmong families across the country to start their new lives in Merced and Fresno. This massive secondary migration of Hmong refugees to the Central Valley caused social workers to accuse the Hmong of taking advantage of the generous California welfare system. In 1985 the welfare dependency among the Hmong was about 75%.  Our big families of 6.9 children in 1986 received more welfare cash aid than a father working $4.25 an hour minimum wage job.

Though small in number, Southeast Asians in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam played a pivotal role in the Cold War, international political power jostling between the United States and the Soviet Union. For fifteen years from 1960 – 1975, Americans read in newspapers and saw the disaster of the Vietnam War unfolded on television. The political quagmire that engulfed Southeast Asia expanded over three presidential administrations – Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – became a permanent scar on the American consciousness, a hefty price to pay both in human lives and money (more than 58,000 dead and over 300,000 wounded and $168 billion – $1 trillion in today’s money.)

In part this American foreign policy (communist containment) in Southeast Asia was the core of the United States’ response to communist expansion in Asia at large. In 1949, China turned communists with Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalist Chinese forces. A year later with the support of the Soviet Union and China, communist North Korea invaded democratic South Korea. The conflict ended in an armistice in 1953. In Southeast Asia, the three French colonies Cambodian, Laos, and Vietnam were vying for their respective independence from France beginning in 1945. Subsequently, Cambodia and Laos were granted independence in 1953 without military conflicts.  However, France would not relinquish the same to Vietnam until it was militarily defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu by the Vietnamese nationalist Viet Minh in 1954. The United States orchestrated the Geneva Accord of 1954 to divide Vietnam into two countries – North Vietnam, communist controlled and South Vietnam, democratic. This strategy of using South Vietnam as a buffer zone to protect Thailand and Burma was part of the “domino theory” hysteria that if one country fell to communists, then the neighboring one will also fall, and then the one after.

Peace in Southeast Asia proved fragile as the power vacuum created by the departure of France resulted in the monarchies in Laos and Cambodia too unstructured to govern. Accusations of corruption and other internal conflicts ensued, creating ideological factions that could not come to political consensus. The Geneva Accord of 1962, an international agreement to establish Cambodia and Laos as neutral countries, meaning they supported neither communism nor democracy, and there were to be no foreign troops in Laos or Cambodia. But this agreement simply proved its own ineffectiveness. The regional powers like China and North Vietnam and the superpower of the Soviet Union and China never adhered to the terms. North Vietnam infiltrated to Laos and Cambodia through the Ho Chi Minh Trail that cut through eastern Laos, bordering North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Under the Kennedy administration, the CIA secretly recruited democratic leaning Hmong, Lao, and other indigenous hilltribes to fight the North Vietnamese communists on the Trail. Leading this effort was a Hmong man named Vang Pao, also known as General Vang Pao, who rose to prominence as a freedom loving fighter and staunch American ally. The primary duties of the Hmong under his command were to: 1) disrupt the flow of supplies to South Vietnam, 2) rescue downed American pilots, 3) provide strategic intelligence on enemy operations, and 4) guard satellite installations. The Hmong became the sacrificial lamb in America’s secret war to contain communists by paying with 10% of its population in Laos – 30,000 dead among 300,000.

The calamity of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia created one of the largest exoduses of refugees out of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. People who had sided with the American effort were targeted for reprisals by communist forces after the war. About 200,000 Cambodians fled the terror of their own countrymen, the Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for killing over 2 million of its own population. In Laos nearly 300,000 Hmong, lowland Lao, Mien, Khmu, Lahu and other hilltribes made their own escapes to neighboring Thailand. Over a million Vietnamese fled South Vietnam to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore. This tragedy of constant refugees fleeing persecution continued into the mid 2000’s, but politically speaking, people who fled Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam after 1991 were no longer categorized as refugees.

This story “Southeast Asian Refugees” by Silas Cha is licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0


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Our Lives: An Ethnic Studies Primer Copyright © 2022 by Vera Guerrero Kennedy and Rowena Bermio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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