Sunisa Lee (center), joined by her mother, Yeev Thoj (left) and younger sister Shyenne Lee (right), waves from atop a fire engine during her welcome home parade in Maplewood on Sunday, August 8, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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Dearest Suni, Yeev Thoj, and John Lee:    

The gold, the silver, and the bronze Olympic medals are perfect for each of you!!! You don’t know me, but in that very special Hmong way, we are family, and our immediate relatives probably lived and worked together on the same mountain back in Laos. And for sure, they ate together in the refugee camps, long before being resettled to the United States, or another country. I’m a former St. Paul resident, and I’m writing this public love letter because I want the world to know how truly exceptional your story is, not only for Hmong people, but for refugees, immigrants, and all communities that are still marginalized and little understood. 

Kuv zoo siab tshaj plaws thiab thov qhuas txog Sunisa thiab nws niam nws txiv. Lawv tau ua ib tus qauv zoo rau ib tsoom niam txiv thiab tej mi nyuam taug. [My heart is bursting with joy, and pride, Sunisa, for you, and your Mom and Dad. And this is just a simple love letter to mark this moment in Hmong American history.]

I’m writing to you from New York City, where I’m finishing a year-long fellowship at Columbia University. I’m a Hmong Texan, a naturalized American from the Thoj clan, and I’ve been a radio journalist for the past two decades. Now I’m working on my second career, becoming a new author, with a book proposal titled “The Hmong Girl That Survived A Grenade Attack.” I’m also a future teacher, wanting to help young people learn radio, story-telling, and podcasting (Look out for my new audio project–Wakaneja/ Sacred Ones, about Native American youth and the 2016 Standing Rock movement). That’s just a little background for you, so that if we ever meet, and I have a microphone in my hand, you’ll know exactly why!   

Suni, I’m celebrating you, not just because you made history as the first-ever Hmong American Olympian, but because the world under-estimated you (and many of us), and when it mattered most, YOU did not give up on yourself, and you showed the world exactly how powerful and beautiful you are. I’m going to write more about your journey, but first, let me take a minute to say something to your parents. 

Yeev and John, you both deserve Olympic medals for raising Suni far differently from most Hmong households. John, I spoke to your oldest brother, HeuPao Peter Lee, and he helped me to understand that you both treated each of your children equally, that boys were not prioritized over girls, and one child was not loved above others. He also said your family merged its deep Catholic faith with its important Hmong traditions. And since you were both competitive in sports, and in life, you both blessed Suni, and her siblings, with that spirit, too. I bet Suni was never called a “poj laib” (female gangster) and “niag ruam (idiot or stupid one).” 

Those who know our Hmong history already understand that Hmong girls and women have long been undervalued, and mistreated. Most weren’t even allowed to go to school back in Laos. And they were usually married off young, in their teens, sometimes earlier. When Hmong families started to arrive in the United States, in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, because of war and conflict in our homelands, Hmong girls were still being kidnapped in the traditional/ cultural ways, to marry much older men, or to become second or third wives. I had a suitor when I was 15. My older sister was married at 16. My own mother was married “late” at the age of 17. Ask most Hmong women today, and they’ll tell you that they, or their mothers, were married far too young.      

Even now, many Hmong girls are still forced by their parents, and relatives, to prepare for that ideal husband, to train to become a good Hmong wife. More modern and less traditional Hmong parents, like mine, have adapted, but most Hmong women in the United States, and every country where we now call our home, have long known that our worth was dependent on our future spouse, because only by marrying did our lives truly begin. At least that’s what they told most of us. As a Hmong woman in my 40’s, not yet married, and happily single, I can assure you that I’ve had a wondrous life so far, filled with much love, the kind that is magical, rare, and lives in you, forever.  

Suni, in my humble opinion, you are most beloved, and treasured, because by following your light, your energy, you knew you were going to be different from other Hmong girls. You had already experienced the pain of being left behind by your birth father. Then in childhood, you survived a frightening house fire. When your family couldn’t afford gymnastics, or plane tickets to most competitions, that didn’t deter you, or distract you, you simply worked harder. After your father became paralyzed, you later had your own leg and ankle injury, but you stayed focused on your goals. And we all witnessed how you stepped up, under the most extreme pressure, when your own teammate, Simone Biles, then the world’s greatest gymnast, stepped aside to take care of her mental health. You remained absolutely elegant during the all-around gymnastics competition, winning that coveted gold medal. And with those gorgeous nails!!!

“Whatever you see in competition, she has more in the tank,” said Punnarith Koy, her first-ever coach from Midwest Gymnastics in Little Canada. 

He trained Sunisa from the time she was 6-years-old, practicing on her father’s home-made wooden beam in the backyard. On the morning of the all-around competition, he had just left an Olympics watch party, and was driving back to his gym, when he heard that Rebeca Andrade of Brazil stepped out of bounds a second time. 

“Once that happened, I knew that Suni had already won the gold, so I started bawling a little bit in the car,” he said. “It’s one of those moments, where you have the whole lifelong body of work flash before your eyes, and you see the child become a woman, and become a superstar all of a sudden, this iconic figure for all time. And you just can’t help but be emotional about it. It’s a very vindicating moment, a very satisfying, proud moment.”

Bao Vang was crying too. She’s known Sunisa’s parents for 20 years, when they were just starting to date. The day after Sunisa was born, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown St. Paul, she went to see mom and baby.   

“And we went to go visit Yeev (Sunisa’s mom), and when we walked in, she had Suni hanging from her fingers at only a day old! And we were like, you can’t do that! She’s going to get hurt. And her mom was like, no, she’s super strong, I don’t even have to hold her… She’s holding onto my finger by herself! And we were like, what? But also, wow! So that was like the first indicator to us that Suni was going to be special.”

Bao introduced Suni’s parents to Coach Koy years ago. And since then, the two have been messaging each other, discussing Suni, during key competitions.   

“I’m super, super proud of Suni,” she said. “But I’m really, really proud of Yeev and John because I know they sacrificed so much. There were times where we would invite them to go out or invite them to do other stuff, but they were like, no, we gotta take Suni to practice, or we gotta do this, and that, because she practices like eight hours a day. They’ve sacrificed so much for her, and I’m just so proud of them.” 

In the Hmong American diaspora, we have 18 clans, and Suni is in the Lee clan. The head of that larger family is Lee Khoua Sayaxang. He told me they’re organizing big events for Suni and her family across the country. He gets emotional just thinking about Suni because he says he doesn’t have daughters of his own. When he sees how Suni lovingly hugs her dad, he starts to cry. 

For our Hmong community, it has long been boys that were prized, but that’s thankfully changing.  

Summer Yang is an 18-year-old Hmong high school graduate from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She says her parents, and especially her grandmother, would like her to marry a Hmong man, but they also recognize that she’d like to go to college, and maybe pursue higher education, too. She only recently got into athletics, so watching a Hmong American compete, then win, was extra-special.   

“I honestly think Suni is super, super cool, and inspirational,” Yang said. “It was awesome to see her perform, and to represent a minority community like Hmong Americans.”

Mayjoua Joyce Vang agrees. She’s a retired social service manager in Orange County, California, and also one of my special Hmong aunties. 

“Suni is a reminder that with love, you can go anywhere, do anything, and achieve all your goals,” Vang said. “Suni was showered with unconditional love. Her father didn’t pressure her. He repeatedly told her to have fun, so she grew up in a very positive environment. Our community has historically had a lot of drama [bad, painful news], but Suni made international headlines, in a good, peaceful, inspiring way. This makes all Hmong proud, but Americans, too.”

Peb hlub koj! [We love you!]

With deepest affection,

Doualy Xaykaothao (@DoualyX)

Doualy Xaykaothao

Doualy Xaykaothao is an award-winning Hmong American radio journalist best known for her work on NPR.