by A. Minh Nguyen
On the morning of July 29, 2021, I woke up to the news that Minnesota native Sunisa Lee, also known as Suni, had become the 2020 Olympic individual all-around champion in women’s gymnastics, the first Asian of any nationality to achieve this distinction. How much does Suni Lee’s Olympic gold medal victory mean for an Asian American father such as myself? A lot — although before the Summer Olympics in Tokyo I had no idea who she was. I didn’t even know who Simone Biles was. Two days before, Lee was a member of the squad that won silver in women’s team all-around, and three days after her gold medal performance, she won bronze in uneven bars.
Like other Americans, I was overjoyed by Lee’s multi-medal win at the Tokyo Olympics, especially because she did it in the face of adversity. She overcame so many obstacles: her father’s fall off a ladder in 2019 that paralyzed him from the waist down, the deaths of her aunt and uncle from COVID-19 in 2020, and her own leg and foot injury that sidelined her for two months last year.
The fact that Lee was the first Hmong American Olympian, let alone the first Hmong American Olympic multi-medalist, was extra special for me. Like her parents, Houa John Lee and Yeev Thoj, refugees who immigrated to the United States from Laos via Thailand as children, I was a minor — an unaccompanied minor — from communist Vietnam who spent 17 months in two refugee camps in Indonesia. So was my wife Nhi even though she and her family reached the U.S. by way of a refugee camp in the Philippines. As a fellow child refugee from Southeast Asia, I could imagine Lee’s parents’ struggles. I could imagine their dreams.
Asian Americans are lauded as the model minority. We are praised as exemplars of unproblematic assimilation, upward mobility, and traditional family values. Our aptitudes and attitudes inspire positive thoughts and feelings. Yet this comforting cliché masks a more complicated reality. Wealth, income, education, occupation, and other measures of socioeconomic status vary drastically among Asian Americans both within and across communities of different ethnic backgrounds and national origins. Those variations depend on a number of factors such as geographical location within the U.S. and histories of migration. However you slice it, there is no way that Southeast Asian Americans — in particular Hmong Americans, nearly 60 percent of whom are low-income and more than 25 percent of whom live below the poverty line — sit comfortably within the gauzy dream of a fictitious model minority.
Since July 29, 2021, many commentaries and analyses have been crafted about what Lee’s medal-winning performances, especially the one that culminated in her Olympic gold, mean for her, her family, the Hmong American community, the greater Asian American community, the United States, and the world. Unfailingly laudatory, these pieces variously portray Lee as “a beacon of Hmong American pride,” “the apotheosis of the American dream,” and “the face of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.” A number of commentators and analysts have explored her victory and its significance in terms of parental love, community support, grit, and resilience and referenced the idea of a model minority and anti-Asian racism and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic. I will leave such reflections to those who study such topics. Instead, I will share my thoughts as a father of two Asian American daughters.
Our daughters grew up acutely aware that we, as people of Asian descent living in the U.S., would be treated as less American time and time again. Even though Nhi and I never explicitly gave them the race talk, life threw them a steep learning curve. Their education never taught them about people who looked like them outside the context of the Vietnam War. During their childhood, Asian faces rarely graced our television screen. Popular media had yet to learn that Asian actors’ talents extended beyond walking in the background of scenes or serving tea in qípáos to the main characters or the supporting cast. Although Nhi and I tried to supplement their education with activities that related to the diversity of Asian and Asian American perspectives and experiences such as reading, cooking, learning about their multi-ethnic family history, and participating in cultural fairs and exhibits, it would take more than supplementary education to make them feel as if they had not been on the periphery of what it means to be American. And it was not just our daughters who were questioning their American identities.
It may seem natural for humans to be curious about race, but as many Asians can attest, when someone asks, “Where are you from?” they are rarely satisfied when the answer cites a location in the United States. Our younger daughter Vivian was only six years old when her Americanness was targeted. The “Where are you from?” question quickly devolved into “Why are your eyes like that?” “Why do you eat nasty food?” “Why do your parents speak so weird?” The questioning was only initiated because a judgment had been made. The questioning only stopped because a judgment too had been made.
When Vivian was seven years old, several students blocked our daughter from entering the bathroom and told her to go back to Iraq. While changing Vivian’s soiled pants, Nhi assured her that she had been born in Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey, and that America was where she belonged. This incident wouldn’t be the last and it wasn’t exclusive to Vivian. Her older sister Cynthia had suffered similar insults and humiliations throughout her education and well into her various careers.
I tend to look on the bright side of things. Life as a refugee is rough as it is — with the displacement, the adjustment, the longing — no need to compound it by embracing a negative outlook. It was easy for me to celebrate the moments when our daughters felt proud of their Asian heritage, when their faces felt affirmed by what they read or saw on television. Navigating the isolation, alienation, loneliness — in a word, pain — that they felt at the hands of their education, their popular culture, and their peers and teachers because of their race was a minefield for which I had not been prepared. Nhi and I taught our daughters never to let these incidents slide and she spent countless hours advocating on their behalf when school administrators chose to see the blatant racism as innocent children’s play. However, our younger daughter’s experiences of racism abroad were a turning point for me and how I think about this subject.
Awarded a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) in 2018, Vivian spent the summer after her sophomore year in a Middle Eastern country immersed in Arabic language and culture. This was an invaluable experience for her not only because of the cultural and educational enrichment but also because this was her first time out of the country since she had visited Vietnam as a five-year-old.
Not everyone was welcoming. As one of the three Asian Americans in her CLS cohort in a country where the majority of migrant workers came from South and Southeast Asia, Vivian often heard “Sheklish ma amrikii.” If she hadn’t understood Arabic, she would probably have thought this was a customary greeting. The phrase, however, means “Your face is not American.” It seemed impossible for many of the native population she met to think of her as American and they treated her as such.
While her white peers within the CLS cohort were invited to teas on the streets, given complimentary stickers and phone numbers in the stores, and never questioned about their origins, Vivian and other Critical Language Scholars of color were mistaken for laborers or maids, encouraged to lighten their skin, and followed suspiciously around in the stores. To be seen as American came with trust, respect, and dignity, but Vivian and her BIPOC peers learned just how conditional Americanness is. It’s important to note that these experiences are not unique to the Middle East; it would be wrong to read it this way. Indeed, Vivian would go on to experience similar situations while working in Southern Europe the following summer.
When Vivian told Nhi and me about all these experiences — about how violated the stares, gestures, and comments made her feel — we were shattered. Her blurred image on FaceTime did little to conceal her anguish.
“I wish I could leave.”
Minutes passed yet I said nothing. Guilt and sorrow burrowed deep into my soul. The idea of a good immigrant — a good refugee — burst. The one who works hard, who plays fair, who earns a PhD, who teaches at a top military-friendly school, who turns the other cheek, who always chooses peace and harmony. We were now in the thick of what happened because I had been sweeping everything under the rug for too long. Had I confronted this kind of in-your-face erasure and the like head-on years ago, perhaps the wounds wouldn’t have been as raw or deep as they were now in our daughter. Had I done what’s right by seeking justice then, perhaps Vivian wouldn’t have felt so alone in this fight while nearly 8,000 miles away.
“Baby, you are an American,” I managed to say. “Mommy and I met in New York, you were born in New Jersey, you were raised in Georgia and Kentucky.”
“It’s fine, Thầy [Dad]. It’s not like it’s the first time,” said Vivian, her eyes vacant and dejected. My lame litany of facts did nothing to console our daughter. My mind was flooded with memories. When Vivian was in first grade at the height of the Second Persian Gulf War, a kid taunted her at an outdoor swimming pool managed by the university where I used to work, “Where are you from? Iraq?” When she was in fourth grade, several students pulled the outside corners of their eyes upward and downward rhythmically as they chanted, “Chinese! Japanese! Look I’m both! Chinese! Japanese! Look I’m both!…” In the early morning (approximately 1:30 a.m.) of February 21, 2014, when Vivian was in 10th grade, three individuals tried to break into the front door of our house, screaming and jeering as our terrified family scrambled for help, “Fucking Asians! Listen to those fucking Asians!” Despite the fairly immediate arrest and subsequent police report, there had been no findings of wrongdoing, no charges, no fines, no apologies, just recurring nightmares and debates among us over getting a gun. If this is how your fellow citizens treat you in your own country, should you expect anything better outside the country? Virtue, I was taught, begins at home.
Much to our family’s surprise, Vivian’s experiences overseas have not dampened her love for travel and building rapport with people from all over the world, especially those unlike her. If all goes well with the pandemic, she will leave this fall to serve as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant to another country in the Middle East and as a cultural ambassador on behalf of the United States.
So, you can see why Suni Lee’s Olympic gold medal victory means so much to this Asian American father. I hope more Asian American children will grow up with role models who look like them, who redefine what it means to be American and rewrite the story of America — not only for the sake of people of color but also for those who have never had their own identities questioned. I hope they will be as bold and fearless and gritty and resilient as Lee, who, in the face of adversity, did not lose sight of her dreams. I hope they will grow up seeing their own faces just as beautiful and worthy as those of their peers and knowing in their hearts that they are American and that they feel American and that they bleed American.
I hope nobody will ever again question Vivian’s Americanness and she will never again have to explain or justify who she is (though I know this will take much more than an Olympic win). I hope the same for other Asian Americans and people of color — and indeed for anyone else who is marginalized or otherwise othered. I hope the conditions that trigger this kind of mindless skepticism — whether rooted in ignorance, prejudice, fear, or hate — will be obliterated.
Thanks to all the attention on Asian Americans that Lee’s triumph has generated, I hope we can all pause and reflect on this year. A year that saw too many Asian Americans’ loyalties questioned. Too many Asian-owned restaurants and other small businesses shut down. Too many unprovoked attacks against Asian Americans, including beatings, stabbings, shootings. All of these because, to some, our faces, our sufferings, our very own beings were not American enough.
What exactly is an American face anyway? Is there such a thing given an increasingly wide variety of racial and ethnic groups in our country? Are there well-defined and meaningful elements that fully or even mostly capture what is essential to or characteristic of an American face? I doubt it.
Part of what it is to be a decent human being, I submit, is to take seriously our obligation to stand in solidarity with victims of injustice, especially racial injustice. We owe it to our shared humanity to strongly and unequivocally condemn all forms of racism and ethnocentrism. It takes honesty and courage but we must face our own contributions to injustice and oppression as well as the injustice and oppression that we ourselves have suffered. Having looked at the sins of the past, however, we must take a breath and look forward. We must do our utmost to fulfill our commitments to the highest ideals of justice, freedom, diversity, equity, and inclusion. We must resolve to serve as agents of positive change and to work toward a better, more just, more free society.
In 1982, my parents arranged for me, then an unskilled unaccompanied minor, to flee communist Vietnam on a rickety boat. After five days and five nights in the South China Sea plus nearly a year and a half in two refugee camps in Indonesia, I arrived in this country a few months before I turned 17. I fled an oppressive communist regime and immigrated to the United States seeking to live in a better, more just, more free society. So did Nhi and Lee’s parents. It would be sadly ironic if we risked our lives fleeing the human rights abuses in Laos and Vietnam only to see ourselves, our children, and similarly situated individuals suffer racial injustice in the U.S.
Justice in a society of contending individuals and groups is a balance trickier to achieve and maintain than Suni Lee’s on the beam. But it is a landing — a stuck landing — well worth striving for. A just society for our children is something greater and more complete than any medal. It is an achievement we can dream we will all one day share.
 Katrina Dizon Mariategue, Quyen Dinh, June Lim, and Shelly Chen, Southeast Asian American Journeys: A National Snapshot of Our Communities (Washington, DC: Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, 2020), accessed September 3, 2021, https://www.searac.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/SEARAC_NationalSnapshot_PrinterFriendly.pdf, 10.
 Angela Vang, “Sunisa Lee Is a Beacon of Hmong American Pride,” interview with Ari Shapiro, All Things Considered, NPR, July 29, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/07/29/1022412531/sunisa-lee-is-a-beacon-of-hmong-american-pride.
 Tim Layden, “Let This Moment Belong to Suni Lee, Apotheosis of the American Dream,” NBC News, July 29, 2021, https://www.nbcolympics.com/news/layden-let-moment-belong-suni-lee-apotheosis-american-dream.
 Josh Powell, “Suni Lee Is the Face of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics,” TwinSpires.com, July 30, 2021, https://edge.twinspires.com/suni-lee-is-the-face-of-the-tokyo-2020-olympics/.
 “Stop AAPI Hate,” Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), accessed September 3, 2021, https://stopaapihate.org/.
 I would like to thank Ogechi Anyanwu, Dien Ho, Jan-Martijn Meij, Binh Nguyen, Son Nguyen, Tuan Nguyen, Terumi Rafferty-Osaki, S. Abbas Raza, Bill Robinson, Abraham Velez, and Caylee Weintraub for their helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay. I am deeply grateful to Eric Kaplan, Brent Robbins, and Jerry Wallace for carefully reviewing multiple drafts. Special thanks to Cynthia Chang, who provided the photo that accompanies this essay, Nhi Huynh, and, above all, Vivian Nguyen for their constant support and encouragement. This essay would not have been possible without their assistance.
Born and raised in Vietnam, I began my teaching career as a part-time lecturer in philosophy in 1993 at Columbia University, where I earned a BA in mathematics, an MA in philosophy, and a PhD in philosophy. Joining the Florida Gulf Coast University faculty from Eastern Kentucky University in 2019, I am currently serving as Assistant Dean of the Honors College, Professor of Philosophy, and Faculty Affiliate of the Center for Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. At EKU (2003-2019), I served as Professor of Philosophy, Founding Director of Asian Studies, and Associate Director of the Honors Program. A specialist in philosophy of mind and theory of knowledge, I also work in aesthetics and creative writing. My publications include New Essays in Japanese Aesthetics (Lexington Books, 2018). With Yarran Hominh (Dartmouth College), I have been editing the American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Asian and Asian American Philosophers and Philosophies since 2019.