Shortly after Suni Lee captured Americans' hearts and an Olympic gold medal, a reporter asked her in Hmong to explain how the gymnast's victory would help Hmong and Asian American communities.
"Do I say it in Hmong?" Lee asked with a laugh, as if embarrassed. "I don't think I can say it. You guys are going to laugh at me."
Lee gave it her best, but after just one line — "Hello, my name is Sunisa Lee" — she switched to English to thank her supporters.
The exchange was brief, bittersweet and all too relatable for Ia Xiong, a 35-year-old Twin Cities psychologist who, among many proud Hmong Americans, was watching the news conference online.
"I immediately saw myself in her," Xiong, of Centerville, told me. "So many people my generation and younger, we have that deep desire to connect with our community, but also a deep fear of letting everyone down. The loss of our culture is so rapid within one generation."
And after she saw some elders in her community criticize Lee's lack of Hmong speaking skills, suggesting the athlete wasn't truly Hmong, Xiong knew she needed to address it.
On her Facebook page promoting Hmong mental health and wellness, Xiong posted, "Dear Hmong kids who aren't fluent in Hmong: It is not shameful or a personal failure. It is an example of loss associated with historical trauma."
The post was shared more than 1,300 times, a signal to Xiong that a collective heartache over language attrition was felt by children and grandchildren of immigrants everywhere. For the Hmong, who fought and died in the Secret War in Laos while assisting the CIA, losing one's mother tongue is something to grieve, she says.
"Both my parents were orphaned during the war, so I didn't have any grandparents growing up," says Xiong, who was raised in Spokane, Wash. "Deep down I always wanted to speak Hmong. So many of our elders were killed during the war. How are we supposed to learn culture and traditions from our elders, when so many of our elders weren't there?"
Language loss is a story as old as immigration itself. I still feel my face get flush when I walk into a Chinese restaurant. I look the part, but I can't speak or understand the language. Although my dad spent the first 10 years of his life in and around Hong Kong, he says he still speaks Cantonese like a fifth-grader, if even that. After he married my mom — who was fluent in Taiwanese and Mandarin, but not Cantonese — they spoke the only language they had in common: English.
Why do I get embarrassed for something that is no fault of mine? Maybe I'm transported to my childhood memory of being sent to weekend Mandarin-language class for the first time. The young students, all ABCs (American-born Chinese) like myself, took turns reading aloud passages from a book. When it was my turn, I felt a lump in my throat — and deep shame that the beautiful Chinese characters on the page represented nothing to me. I felt pity from the teacher who noticed my welled-up eyes and kindly moved onto the next pupil.
And yet every time I explore a big city, I make a beeline to Chinatown. I crave hearing the sounds of Cantonese — its explosiveness and melodic tones. It takes me to my grandmother's kitchen, even though she is long gone. I've spent years studying Mandarin, even living in Taiwan after college in hopes of reclaiming scraps of my ancestral past and connecting with my grandfather there. But the older I get, the more I have come to accept that I will never be bilingual.
For Americans of my generation, the embarrassment comes from all sides, as we bear both the shame of our elders and the humiliation of childhood stigma.
Rep. Kaohly Vang Her of St. Paul grew up attending white schools in Appleton, Wis., and remembers it was a point of pride to blend in and speak perfect American English.
"We did everything we could to survive because of the stereotypes people gave us about being lazy or not speaking English well," she said.
At 48, Her's command of her first language is common for people who've straddled two cultures: "I understand Hmong 100 percent," she says. "I can hear all the things I want to say in my head, but when I have to say it out loud, I can't do it."
This became clear to Her a couple of years ago while attending the funeral of an elder who was like a grandfather to her. Because he was a prominent St. Paul leader and hero in the Secret War, the service was broadcast around the United States and drew elected officials, including Mayor Melvin Carter. Her offered on the fly to translate the mayor's remarks, but she found herself struggling with how to do it justice in Hmong.
"Then I said in Hmong, 'You guys know what he's saying, right?' I could hear people in the audience saying, 'No...' " she recalled. "It was really embarrassing for me because I heard from people all over the country telling my parents, "Oh, your daughter doesn't speak Hmong at all.' It made me think of what I had to give up in my life to get to where I am today."
Her worked in the investment and finance sector for 15 years after graduating from college, often feeling alone in her journey. Today, she's the second-eldest of six Hmong American legislators at the Capitol — and she says she has the worst grasp of the Hmong language.
These days, Americans of every color have embraced language-immersion programs for their kids, and the latest science shows the cognitive benefits of bilingual education. There are also so many more opportunities for the children of immigrants and refugees to be proud of their culture, she says.
"Now I question, did I have to lose a part of myself in order to get where I am? I don't know the answer," Her says. "I just know what I gave up, and I agonize over it."
Xiong, the psychologist and a 2019 Bush Fellow, is now speaking more in her first language than she has for the past three decades. She reads to her two toddlers in Hmong and sends them to their grandparents as much as possible so they can be exposed to the language. And recently, she even went onto a 3HmongTV show and conversed in her native tongue.
"It was really hard, but I used myself as an example as a struggling younger person trying to speak," Xiong said.
She says it's important for people wrestling with language loss to acknowledge the context of their lives so they can heal. She tells young people it's not their fault, and that they've been carrying pain and loss and grief, sometimes without even knowing it.
"The more that we understand our experiences," she said, "the more we can move forward with acceptance and courage to be who we are."