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Opinion Sunisa Lee didn’t owe the U.S. gold. Her victory is a gift, especially to her Hmong community.

Gymnast Sunisa Lee of the United States during the women's all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

Phillipe Thao is a writer and second-generation Hmong American who lives in St. Paul, Minn.

In the Hmong culture, we have a saying, “Hmoob yuav tsum hlub Hmoob. Leej twg yuav hlub Hmoob?” The first sentence translates to, “Hmong have to love Hmong.” The second part asks, “Who else will love Hmong?” As members of a displaced ethnic group from Southeast Asia, love for our people is all we have when there is no place to call our own. Sunisa Lee’s Olympic gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around competition is a win for the country, for Asian Americans and, most of all, for her fellow members of the Hmong diaspora.

So much of Hmong history is rooted in war and loss.

During the Vietnam War, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited the Hmong to fight in a covert operation in Laos known as the “Secret War.” Though 30,000 Hmong people served in that conflict, and estimates of how many Hmong died range as high as 200,000, we were left behind by the United States.

Those of us who stayed in Laos were forced to work on collective farms or interned in reeducation camps. Many Hmong left. The uprooting of so many of our people separated families and severed tightknit communal bonds, which we tried to replicate in countries such as the United States, to which more than 100,000 Hmong eventually emigrated. Today, there are more than 66,000 Hmong in Minnesota.

One member of that community is Lee, a St. Paul native. To see her win a gold medal on a global stage feels like being acknowledged by a history that has only erased us. It’s not that the world finally noticed us; we wrote ourselves into the record.

To be part of a diaspora means to create a home in lands that don’t want you in them; to constantly carve out spaces just so you can exist. Lee is a product of that resilience.

After her father, John Lee, was paralyzed two years ago from a fall, the Hmong community bought T-shirts and donated money at the Twin Cities Hmong New Year to support the family. Earlier this month, friends and family celebrated outside the Lee residence on St. Paul’s east side for an Olympics send-off party. Lee is the first Hmong American Olympian, but that’s not the sole inspiration for these acts of service. Showing up for one another is in the fabric of our culture because it has been the key to surviving centuries of genocide. The support Lee’s family and community have shown her is the very definition of “Hmoob yuav tsum hlub Hmoob.”

Family and friends in Oakdale, Minn., celebrated as Sunisa Lee clinched the gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around at the Tokyo Olympics on July 19. (Video: Nicole Marie King via Storyful)

As a video of Lee’s family and friends reacting to her gold medal victory circulated on Twitter Thursday morning, many Hmong Americans echoed how her family looks just like theirs, though our pride in her isn’t just about representation. Through Lee’s success, we are able to share the fruits and labors of the Minnesota Hmong community with the rest of the world.

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These expressions of joy feel both poignant and powerful given the new pressures Hmong and Asian American communities have faced in recent years. The Trump administration stopped issuing some visas to Laotians and people who applied to visas from Laos as part of a broader immigration crackdown. Asian Americans have endured an increase in racial violence during the covid-19 pandemic. The coronavirus led to the deaths of Lee’s aunt and uncle; she was unable to attend their funerals, and lost their vital support at a critical juncture during her training.

And even as too many Americans denigrate Southeast Asians and refugees, Lee’s sudden prominence also shows how quickly the United States triangulates Asian and Black people against one another. Lee became the country’s best hope for gold in the women’s all-around when Simone Biles stepped back to prioritize her mental health. Lee immediately became the subject of a model-minority narrative that pitted her against Biles, who was subject to racist attacks for her decision.

Lee has defied both that hatred and those efforts to play Black and Asian Americans against one another. With a gold medal around her neck, many Americans are suddenly claiming her success as their own. But as she told NBC, “We don’t owe anybody anything. We don’t owe you a gold medal.” And she’s right. Lee’s win is a gift to an America that hasn’t always helped — and sometimes has actively harmed — her community, not a down payment on a debt.

To the Hmong community, Lee’s victory isn’t a means to mend a broken country, nor to gain acceptance from a nation that once abandoned us. Her success has replaced tears of trauma with tears of joy. Our elders have always yearned that one day we will have a country to unify our people. Suni Lee proved that our love for one another is enough.

More about the Tokyo Olympics

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