By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)
Material and spiritual loss
Ma Vang presented a receipt of a lost baggage. She described the items listed, traced the path of the bag from Thailand to the United States, and made inferences regarding the people who once owned these items.
A lost bag is an "artifact of refugee experience" and highlights the "underlying losses of one's country and spirit throughout a long history of forced displacement, of being on the run," according to Vang.
In a colloquium on November 10, 2020 hosted by UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Ma Vang, assistant professor at the University of California, Merced, discussed Hmong refugee epistemologies stemming from the secret war in Laos from 1961 to 1975.
There are three Hmong realities, she stated, from the journey of escape within a larger history of resettlement to the burden and memories carried by Hmong women and the physical loss of items that consequentially impacts spiritual loss.
Upon leaving each temporary place of refuge along their path, Hmong refugees must recollect their physical items and spiritual energy.
"But how do you then tell a story that has been systemically kept secret?" Vang asked.
Unraveling state secrecy in the war and policing
The story of Hmong refugees is ahistorical and nongeographical, portraying the individual refugee as not belonging anywhere, said Vang. She asked for a rethinking of who a refugee is beyond the legal definition as outlined in the UN Refugee Convention in 1951. Refugee history, culture, and humanity must interrogate histories of colonialism and state violence.
"We must believe the stories of those displaced in order to unravel the official knowledge," Vang urged. "Secrecy is embedded in official knowledge production. History formation is always incomplete."
One analysis Vang deploys to frame her argument is the Hmong refugee soldier figure. The U.S. army conscripted indigenous peoples to serve as proxy soldiers in Vietnam, ultimately recruiting 40,000 Hmong soldiers. The Hmong soldiers helped facilitate U.S. bombing missions, which served as a key method for Hmong men to strengthen and negotiate their place and status.
However, Vang said the refugee soldier figure is not viewed as a citizen subject and never will be.
In the May 2020 death of George Floyd Jr., a Black man in Minneapolis, media and public outrage focused on Derek Chauvin, the officer who was physically on top of Floyd. But there was also a large outcry over the role of Tou Thao, a Hmong American officer at the scene.
Thao "exposes how state violence operates through policing," Vang said.
As a Hmong American, Thao has a unique history tied to the refugee soldier subject and his role as a police officer parallels U.S. recruitment of Hmong soldiers in the secret war. In both scenarios, involvement in U.S. militaristic power illustrates how Hmong claims of belonging are situated "alongside white supremacist, imperialist structures," according to Vang.
Hmong women and alternative narratives
Looking at Hmong women's perspectives, Vang said their knowledge refuses to follow U.S. narratives. These women’s records of wartime experience demonstrate the devastating impacts of war through displacement, similar to how the gendered understanding of Hmong soldiering is a narrative of expendable lives.
In Vang’s experience interviewing Hmong women, she found that there were still moments of selective storytelling due to trauma. The women had difficulty speaking about the deaths and violence they witnessed.
"Secrecy itself doesn’t determine refugee knowledge, but secrecy can be enacted in refugee narratives," Vang said. "The tracing of unsettled refugee lives is tied to a yearning for home."
In how families talk about their own stories and process their traumas, certain histories and memories are erased. Vang asked, how do we formulate ancestral and lived knowledge complicated by secrecy?
"Hmong knowledge formation exists intertwined with larger discourses about U.S. imperialism and patriarchy," Vang concluded. Ultimately, in understanding Hmong refugee histories, it is necessary to recognize and capture those nuances and believe the refugees themselves.