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On Tuesday, March 16, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long allegedly opened fire on three Asian-owned spas in the Atlanta area, injuring one person and killing eight people, six of whom were Asian women. In the aftermath of the massacre, several people reached out to see if I wanted to host something—a panel, a conversation, or a healing space.
They likely asked because I’m one of the co-founders of Funny Asian Women Kollective (FAWK), a Twin Cities–based comedy group that uses humor to combat the dehumanization and invisibility of Asian women. But at the risk of making an insensitive comparison, this is a bit like asking the family members of a deceased loved one to host healing spaces for outsiders.
Then again, I’m Hmong. I still remember going to a St. Paul hospital when I was 28-years-old to visit a family member for the last time. As I tried to make sense of how this person died so suddenly in the 16 hours since we’d last spoke, my mother wiped away her tears then told my teenage sisters, “Come. Let’s go prepare the house and food for all the people who will come.”
Still sobbing, my sisters left with her, and for 30 days they cooked, cleaned, and cared for other people.
After Atlanta, I said no to the requests. I didn’t want to offer any emotional labor or support for other people—paid or unpaid.
The day after the shooting, 75-year-old Xiao Zhen Xie went viral as “the Chinese Grandma” who fought back when a 39-year-old white man punched her while she waited to cross a street in San Francisco. She beat the man with a stick and left him with a bloody face. Online, the Asian American community celebrated this victory. But in the video that captured this event, one of Xie’s eyes is darkly bruised and she’s crying as she asks her attacker, “You bum, why did you attack me?”
On Saturday, March 20, Bao Yang, a 39-year-old Hmong woman in St. Paul, Minnesota, was shot and killed on her front lawn. Local news reports identified her alleged killer as a former boyfriend from whom she’d been hiding. She lived just seven minutes from my house.
Then on Sunday, another death: 30-year-old Lily Vang was shot and killed, allegedly by her boyfriend, in Wausau, Wisconsin. On Tuesday morning, 41-year-old True Vang was shot and killed, allegedly by her husband, in Fresno, California. Within four days, four Hmong women had been killed nationally—three by former or current partners while 27-year-old Sia Marie Xiong was shot down in Los Angeles. The police said they had no leads on the suspect or the motive for her shooting.
This was my March 2021. During a month when we should have been celebrating women, I watched again and again as Hmong women were killed by their partners, and Asian women were killed or assaulted by strangers.
The only conclusion I can come to is that our lives have very little value in this world. In life, we are cast into the roles of daughters, sisters, wives, students. We are sometimes labeled the good girls and expected to be mute and hardworking.
Sometimes we are threats: to academia, to white women’s belief in their own sexual dominance, to “Americans” who think we are somehow taking jobs from them. We are objects—a girlfriend, a sex toy, a victim. Then, on top of this, some people think we are honorary white people who don’t experience oppression.
It is no wonder that men of all colors think nothing of taking our lives.
Nothing happens, and more women die
If I am honest, I have been watching Hmong women die very public deaths since 1998. I don’t care to offer a litany of names here. I am tired of the need to furnish receipts.
It is like the massacre in Atlanta. Was that a hate crime? Yes. A man intentionally drove from Asian-owned business to Asian-owned business to shoot down Asian people. But the law apparently needs more definitive evidence. I hope they will do what the Korean newspapers have done and talk to spa staff members who allegedly overheard Long saying he wanted to kill all Asians.
I am flitting back between Atlanta, the Hmong world, and my own history. This flitting may be frustrating, but this is what it means to live intersectionally and to live without checking parts of my identities at the door.
Since 1998, I have watched news stories of Hmong women who have died by the hands of their husbands or ex-husbands. In the aftermath, everyone is always so shocked. Fingers get pointed. Nothing happens, and more women die.
I am past anger. I am past community conversations. I am not classy like some people who are “above it all,” people who want to preach peace and unity. I want vengeance. I want justice for the dead.
My mother used to say, “When someone does something bad, don’t do anything in return. Let karma deal with them.”
I used to be angry at her—angry because I didn’t trust karma’s timeline. But now I think her words grew from fear that I’d get hurt. Fear that we as women, as Hmong people, as People of Color, as poor people, do not have the power to fight against those who are bad.
Robert Aaron Long, the accused Atlanta shooter, has been called “a lone wolf” acting on his own. The white community does not want to be responsible for him, to own up that they somehow nurtured a racist killer. None of us are lone wolves. We all belong to some community, even if we are outsiders within that community.
The Hmong community is amazing at many things—and one of them is shaming
The Hmong community is amazing at many things—and one of them is shaming. This is why so many Hmong women stay in toxic relationships. This is why LGBTQIA Hmong people live in the closet. This is why some people leave our community and never come back.
What if we turned our shaming on these men, their families, and friends? What if we name them for what they are?
Don’t invite this person to your home because he hits women and will be a bad role model for your sons. Plus, he might prey on your daughters.
Don’t marry into that family. They keep their daughter-in-law imprisoned by not letting her go to school, work, or associate with people outside the house.
Don’t donate to that man’s funeral. After his daughter was stabbed a hundred times to death, he apologized to her killer’s family, saying his daughter was at fault because she cheated on the husband.
In the Hmong community, our memories are long and we like to penalize people for past misdeeds. When two people marry, for example, the families discuss whether there were any past wrongs, and pay a fee in order to rectify things and move toward harmony. When someone dies, we spend one day at the funeral paying off their monetary debts, so that they can move on spiritually.
If we exacted fees for perpetrators and killers, how much would they have to compensate for the dead women and the children that are left behind? Should there be a flat fee for her death or is her fee based on her age, number of children, educational level—some of the same standards we use to assess her bride price?
Maybe if we put a literal price tag on a woman , the Hmong community will come to value her—or at the very least, be so overwhelmed by the cost, people will think twice before taking her life.