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A year ago, May 2020, my friends and I gathered for a Zoom happy hour. It was the first time we’d seen each other during the pandemic.
“We all need to come out of this pandemic alive,” said one friend. Unbeknownst to us, she’d had COVID back in January and had nearly died. I held onto her words, unwilling to imagine a world where each of us became another statistic.
In June, I visited a family member.
“How are things around here?” I asked my 31-year-old nephew. We stood on his front lawn at what we imagined to be 6 feet apart from each other.
“You see that house at the end of the block?” he gestured down the street. I’d seen it. There were at least five cars in the driveway, a clue that it might be a Hmong household.
“They have a huge family,” my nephew said, “and everyone got COVID. Last week, the mom and the oldest son passed away.”
When he told me the dead son’s age, I flinched. We were the same age.
Around this same time, a close relative passed away. In the 30 days after a Hmong person dies, the immediate family typically hosts a zov hmo, a series of “night gatherings,” where relatives come to prepare for the funeral, eat, grieve, and keep the house warm as people wait for the burial day.
At one such zov hmo for my deceased relative, I heard that an older Hmong man visited and helped to prepare food. Two days later, he died of COVID. After learning of this, I told my siblings not to attend the rest of the zov hmo or the funeral.
My brothers were conflicted. When our mother and father died nearly a decade ago, these same relatives came to support us, and now was our turn. I knew attending the zov hmo was about more than just “showing face” or “paying back” a family. It was about love, care, and respect. It was saying goodbye to someone who watched over us for as long as we’d been alive.
But I also know I occupy a different place in the Hmong world than my brothers and my unmarried sisters. I am a woman. I’m married into another clan. I have a reputation for being a rebel—or not having manners. It all depends on your worldview. I could get away with not showing up at these events.
My siblings stopped by the funeral and kept their distance.
As 2020 waned on, more Hmong people died. My father-in-law had stopped attending funerals because his age and health complications made him vulnerable. Still, through phone calls, he gathered intel about the outside world. He told my husband and me that the funeral homes were packed.
In the pre-pandemic world, a single Hmong funeral would span Friday through Monday. During this time, the funeral home would remain open to the public 24 hours a day. During the pandemic, there were so many bodies, families sometimes had to wait two months before they could bury their loved ones. Eventually, funerals were condensed from four days to one, some occurring on a random weekday.
Almost every day in December, I saw Facebook posts from friends near and far about the death of a loved one. Some died because of COVID. Some died because they were too old or too sick, and hospitals couldn’t prioritize care for them. One friend’s dad had been bedridden for 20 years because of a stroke. Whether it was the pandemic or his body giving out, he also joined the December death toll.
Looking for a cause
Why were so many Hmong people dying?
One answer is that many Hmong families live in multigenerational households. Many were essential workers doing frontline work, so when one person became sick, they infected several generations of one family.
Another answer is the funeral homes. Ironically, people went to funeral homes to pay respect to the dead, but some left sick with coronavirus.
Another answer is the lack of culturally competent outreach and education. If there were prevention resources in culturally specific languages, I don’t recall seeing them. A Vietnamese friend said her parents’ only resource for Vietnamese-language education around COVID-19 came from YouTube videos created in California. In April 2020, I finally saw my first Hmong-translated COVID-19 flyer, and it only surfaced in my network because people were making jokes about the translation.
Another answer is how inaccessible testing options were. I’m educated. I speak English. I have access to technology and healthcare, and yet I struggled to get access to COVID tests. I can’t imagine how someone can navigate these systems when they don’t speak English, don’t have access to technology, or don’t know how to code-switch in the white world.
I share these anecdotes because there were no statistics to tell my community’s story. Frustrated by the lack of disaggregated data, the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) and the Hmong Public Health Association embarked on their own research about COVID-19’s impact on Minnesota’s Asian community. In April 2021, they released their findings.
The Minnesota Department of Health already knew that 4 percent of the state’s 7,100 COVID-19 deaths were Asian. They couldn’t disaggregate the data, though—that is, discern how many deaths came from the state’s different Asian communities. CAAL’s researchers analyzed the public death certificates of 223 Asian-identified people who died of COVID-19 between March and December 2020 and found that 110 came from the Hmong community.
Chao Yang works at Ramsey County Public Health and is the founder of the Hmong Public Health Association, and Chair of the Asian Descent Network. At a virtual town hall meeting to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the Hmong, Karen, and Karenni communities, Yang said, “Hmong Americans make up approximately 28 percent of the Asian American Minnesota population and yet we comprise 49 percent of all the documented COVID-19 deaths.”
In some ways, this study is a triumph. It validates some of the stories I’ve heard during the pandemic. It tells me that Hmong people weren’t just imagining things.
But in another way, the numbers mean nothing to me. They remind me of the kind of world we live in, a world that demands “proof” before it will act on anything. It reminds me of why, in spite of being the child of refugees, in spite of being born in a refugee camp myself, I didn’t choose the path of numbers and data. I did what seemed like a frivolous thing to many Hmong people: I studied literature and writing. I chose to make a living with stories.
‘I won’t question whether these were the right choices’
Fifteen years ago, I co-organized a leadership retreat for Hmong young adults, and one of our activities was called “The Odyssey.” Simply put, it is a simulation of Hmong refugees escaping from Laos into Thailand.
When night came, participants went off to hide in the woods. Their goal was to reach the retreat center without getting caught by the people playing “soldiers.” These soldiers stalked the woods armed with flashlights. In our version, someone was “caught” if a soldier shined a flashlight upon them.
Forty people went to hide in the woods. Only one person “survived,” a 21-year-old Hmong man.
“Why do you think you survived?” I asked him.
“I sacrificed everyone else,” he said. He let other people walk in front of him, so when a soldier caught his group, he simply slipped into the shadows and hid in the woods. In not traveling with a group, he could move more nimbly. He could make it back to the retreat center alive.
I lived in isolation all year. I donated money but went to no funerals. I didn’t see my in-laws for nine months—for their safety more than mine. My husband and I spent Thanksgiving alone. I didn’t even bother to cook the turkey I had purchased.
I won’t berate myself and others for choosing this lifestyle. I won’t question whether these were the right choices. Instead, I will grieve for the dead. I will grieve for the people who had to depart this world without a proper send-off. I will grieve for the children and other family members who had to grieve alone.
On May 13, Governor Walz announced an end to the statewide face cover requirement. Many people I know have been vaccinated. It would seem that the pandemic is ending, and yet it is hard to think about the pandemic as something of the past.
During the last year, I have tried not to check in on people. I didn’t want to know, to track, who had been lost. I know there will be a time when we must all do an inventory of who is still alive and who has passed on. We will have to assess what stories, knowledge, and wisdom is left and contemplate how to fill the void.