A crowd of fans welcomed gymnasts Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum at the Minneapolis–St. Paul Airport on Thursday August 5, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Sunisa Lee returned home to Minnesota with her collection of Olympic gold, silver and bronze on Thursday, celebrated in particular by Asian American women proud of what she had accomplished not only for herself, but for a community that often feels invisible and targeted by the broader society.

Sunisa and fellow Minnesota Olympian Grace McCallum arrived at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport’s Delta terminal to a crowd of 100 fans, family members, elected officials, and other gymnasts. The greeting was a reflection of how her Olympic success has captivated the Twin Cities. 

A parade in east Saint Paul is planned for Sunday afternoon before Sunisa heads to Auburn University in Alabama.

Before flying into the Twin Cities, Sunisa reunited with her parents and siblings in New York City. She hugged her parents and then placed one of her medals around each parent’s neck. 

Sunisa’s success came during a particularly difficult stretch for a community targeted for a global pandemic and disproportionately affected by it too. Asian American women spoke to Sahan Journal about how the 18-year-old brought hope to the Hmong community after becoming the first Hmong Olympian, and the first to win a gold medal.

Representative Samantha Vang (DFL–Brooklyn Center) woke up early in the morning on July 29 to text notifications from her colleagues Representatives Kaohly Her (DFL–Saint Paul) and Tou Xiong (DFL–Maplewood/Woodbury). They had woken up Vang to tell her that Sunisa had just won gold in the women’s individual all-around gymnastics competition. 

“I was just beaming with pride to know that she has won a gold medal,” Vang said. “Her win definitely was something that lifted a weight off my shoulders.”

Soon after, Sunisa’s victory flooded Vang’s social media feeds.

“To be an Asian American at this time was very tough,” Vang said. “Then to see her achievement on a global stage and to be Hmong during this— it’s incredible.”

A community journey

Bo Thao-Urabe, the executive director of the Coalition for Asian American Leaders (CAAL), called Sunisa’s journey to the Olympics and back a community journey. 

“She’s made it because of her own conviction and perseverance,” Thao-Urabe said. “But what’s beautiful about her story is that it represents a community that doesn’t have a lot, but it knows how to survive, how to support.”

And how to succeed, Thao-Urabe later added.

Sunisa Lee, 18, won a gold, silver, and bronze medal in gymnastics at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“She comes from a community that has been both invisible and excluded in many ways. And there have been very tragic moments in the last year, whether it’s the increase in anti-Asian violence or the overwhelming death from COVID,” Thao-Urabe said. “She, herself, and her family have experienced those things.”

CAAL released a report in April that showed Minnesota’s Hmong population dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than other Asian populations in the state. Additionally, the community has been victimized by racist remarks and acts by people who blame the Asian community for the coronavirus.

In March, a man killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women, in a shooting spree at three Atlanta spas. In the aftermath of the shooting, Asian American women across Minnesota linked the violence to a history of racism and misogyny

With the pandemic raging on, the Hmong community in Minnesota—around 66,000 people—was left shaken by the shooting. 

Minnesota is home to the largest Hmong population in the nation, but the community is very tight-knit. A majority of the Hmong population arrived in the United States after fighting in the Vietnam War alongside American forces in what became known as the “Secret War.” After the war, thousands of Hmong people fled from Laos to refugee camps in Thailand. Some of them eventually migrated to the United States.

In 1979, Sunisa’s father, John Lee, came to Saint Paul from Thailand with his parents and 10 siblings. John’s mother, who’s almost 90 years old, is a living reminder of the family’s history, one that isn’t unlike the stories of other Hmong families. 

“It’s not like the Hmong just came here yesterday. We’ve been here for four-plus decades,” Thao-Urabe said. She attributed Suni’s success to her own hard work, but her community’s support too. “Just think about, if there were belief and investment in the potential of all of our young children, where we might have been instead.”

Naomi Ko, a Korean American filmmaker, writer, and actor, hopes that Sunisa’s win shines a much-needed light on the Hmong community, and not just the general Asian American population. 

“It’s important to see us prosper and that Suni Lee’s Olympic gold win shows what Asian Americans can do,” Ko said. “But is it even going to make the impact that we think it’s going to make if people don’t know what’s happening to our communities?”

“That’s not a responsibility on Suni Lee,” Ko continued. “She’s 18 years old and just won a gold medal. I hope she can go into an ice bath and chill out for the next few months.”

Ko raised concerns that Sunisa’s win will actually have the opposite impact, strengthening the model minority myth.

“There’s a part of me that is really scared that the greater American public is going to see this and say, wow, the Asian Americans are so good at everything,” Ko said. “What Suni Lee did was extraordinary and beyond the model minority stereotype. She is the antithesis of that.”

Within Ko’s Asian American circle in Minnesota, she’s been having conversations celebrating Sunisa that don’t require education about who the Hmong are—because most of the people in her circle are Hmong to begin with.

The same can’t be said for her Asian American peers outside of the state.

“That Suni Lee had to win a gold medal for Asian America to recognize Hmong people, is kind of sad,” Ko said.

She hopes that the larger Asian American community, as well as Americans generally, will educate themselves on the struggles of the Hmong people. 

‘I grew up in a generation where Hmong girls could not be in athletics’

Representative Kaohly Her attended the Olympics watch party hosted by Sunisa’s family July 29. 

“The Hmong community in Minnesota is so big, but yet it’s so small,” Her said. “We’re either related by clan or by birth. That’s what’s really special about the Hmong community. When we came together that day, we really came together as a family for Sunisa.”

Melanie Fortilus, 8, is a gymnast at the same gym Sunisa Lee trained at. She came to the airport with her mom, Jamila, to show her support for Sunisa. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

She recalled the sacrifices Sunisa made while training, because she watched her own daughter go through the same hardships. Her’s daughter, Ayden, had trained alongside Sunisa for 10 years.

Along with Sunisa’s perseverance, Her remembered the sacrifices Sunisa’s mother, Yeev Thoj, made during Sunisa’s training. 

“When we were having team dinners, Suni’s mom would always make egg rolls. And egg rolls are not an easy thing to make,” Her said. “We’ve spent hours talking about how we had no idea where gymnastics would lead the girls in those days.”

Her also highlighted another way that Sunisa’s success in the Olympics has affected her community. 

“I grew up in a generation where Hmong girls could not be in athletics,” Her said. “I had to actually forge my parent’s signature to play sports at school, because it was frowned upon that we would do anything outside of our academics.”

As refugees, Her continued, her family had to find a way to survive. “You do that through education, not arts, not athletics.”

To see a community that once discouraged girls from participating in sports rally around Sunisa shows a shift in thinking, Her said.

“We have discussions around the lack of investment in Hmong women and our importance,” Her said. “To see that everyone was coming behind this one young Hmong girl, that to us is a shift in people’s thinking.”

“To have seen so much hate and violence towards us, and then to see everybody celebrate that she was America’s gold medalist, no one was, for that moment, thinking about what had happened in the last year,” Her said.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.