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Translating Transnational Health

May 9, 2016

PhD candidate Mai See Thao has conducted research with Hmong-American communities ever since she was an undergraduate at UW-Madison. As a first generation Hmong-American herself, she felt dissatisfied with the ways Hmong-Americans were represented in academic literature as monolithic and only valuing traditional health beliefs.


Mai See is invested in advocating for Hmong communities through her research, highlighting that Hmong communities are diverse and complex, consisting of recent refugees, first-generation, and second-generation Hmong. She works to advocate for a nuanced understanding of the health needs of Hmong communities in the Twin Cities area by attending to the ways social, historical, and political factors shape illness experiences.

In the second year of her PhD program, Mai See received a scholarship from the University of Minnesota which funded a summer internship with a non-profit clinic in St. Paul. At the internship, she coordinated diabetes group visits with diverse communities, including Hmong-Americans. These group visits aimed to provide a space where people could learn from each other about their challenges and success in dealing with type II diabetes.  

“With my Hmong-speaking diabetes groups, there was an overwhelming outpour of emotional struggle as they dealt with living in the US,” Mai See explains. Through these conversations, Mai See began to realize that her Hmong speaking patients experienced diabetes in a different way than her English-speaking patients. Their group visits became a social gathering where the patients could find people like themselves and share their struggles of adjusting to life in the U.S. “They had a lot of personal struggles with social isolation and dealing with intergenerational problems. They also talked about how returning to Laos and Thailand would help them with their [type II] diabetes.”

Although Mai See’s internship ended, the experience inspired her to write her dissertation on how Hmong-American patients with diabetes see themselves and their illness. Some of the patients expressed that they felt they were no longer the same person they were now that they lived in America. Many of them would return to Laos and Thailand for up to nine months per year, which they believed would help them with their diabetes. “For them, visiting Laos and Thailand is like going home,” she says.

Although the U.S. has “the best health care system compared to Laos and Thailand,” her dissertation examines these return migrations as a way to rethink what it means to care for the part of chronic illness that pervades social life. Mai See strives to consider other forms of care that is not only biomedical but care that serves to heal communities who continually feel uprooted and displaced.

In addition to working on her dissertation, Mai See is part of a community based participatory action research team called Solahmo (Somali, Latino, and Hmong) Partnership for Health and Wellness. As a community researcher, she works with a diverse team of community members that conducts research on health disparities in the Somali, Latino, and Hmong community in the Twin Cities. Drawing on a community asset framework, they’ve completed projects such as radio novellas on obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. These radio stories chronicle families in each community, how they cope with a chronic disease, and illustrates how families, patients, and providers can work together through the art of storytelling. Mai See is proud of her work in the community and says that the novellas have been well-received, “they spark interest and people identify with them.”

Mai See’s CBPAR and dissertation research works to satisfy both the community and academic researcher in her.  Her community research allows her to apply her anthropological knowledge within the community and her dissertation allows her to grapple with larger humanistic questions about migration, uprootedness, and care.

The radio stories are publicly available on the Solahmo Facebook page.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.