The Stories Untold
Associate Professor Mai Na Lee’s journey to the University of Minnesota began nearly 8000 miles away. To escape turmoil and war in Laos in the late 1970s, her family traveled on foot to Thailand with a group of more than 400 people, led by Lee’s father. The journey, which eventually brought Lee to the United States, has shaped the way she sees the world and how she envisions the future for her students and community. She is dedicated to preserving Hmong history, and works diligently to ensure that its hidden stories are uncovered and shared.
When the United States vacated Vietnam in 1973, many citizens of neighboring Laos had been caught in the middle of the conflict and were left unsure of what the future held for them. Lee’s family was in a particularly difficult situation. Her father, who had been a soldier in the Secret War, was now being targeted in the communist takeover of the country. Lee’s family relocated to the jungle to escape the communist siege in 1975. They lived in a village there for two years, until a communist attack forced them to run again.
The family spent another year fleeing the communists, but eventually ran out of food and were forced to surrender. They were moved to a camp under communist control, with Lee’s father put under strict watch and repeatedly questioned about his past. After a year of living in those conditions, a group of 700 people, including Lee and her family, managed to sneak away from the camps and embarked on a 28-day journey to Thailand. Their numbers quickly dwindled to a much smaller group. With nothing but the sun to guide them on their journey, the remaining travellers headed west toward the Mekong River, which borders the two countries.
Upon arriving in Thailand after their grueling trek, Lee’s family registered for settlement in the United States. After a year living in a Thai refugee camp, they arrived in Omro, Wisconsin. For the first time ever in her life, 11-year old Lee held a pencil in her hand. She was placed in a small public elementary school, where she was the only Asian student. With not a word of English in her vocabulary, she learned the language “by the sink or swim method,” becoming fluent after only a year in America. When, just one year later, Lee’s family decided to join some distant relatives in St. Paul, she found herself serving as translator for her new school, facilitating conversations between the school and Hmong families.
As a student at Carleton College, she originally wanted to study biology and go on to medical school. That was, until she enrolled in a seminar on Chinese history and became curious about her own history—but discovered a scarcity of material concerning Hmong history. She changed her focus to history and women’s studies. Much later, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she became the first Hmong–American to earn a PhD in the field of history in 2005.
Connecting teaching, research, and engagement
Lee specializes in Southeast Asian history and her personal history informs both her teaching and research. She teaches two Asian American courses: Hmong History Around the Globe and Hmong Refugees from the Secret War; and two courses on Southeast Asia: The Vietnam Wars and Southeast Asia, a general course about the region. She cannot say enough about how teaching invigorates her research. “Students, both Hmong and non-Hmong, really drive, really inspire me to study the Hmong. My students make me realize that, while marginalized, the Hmong are an important group who need to be known and whose histories and plight in global politics can be used to enlighten the issues of some of the largest, most controversial human conflicts in our time.” She stresses the importance of teaching Hmong history, and her work explores how we can better learn and preserve its astonishing stories.
In collaboration with Professor Ian Baird at University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Hmong Thai professor, Prasit Leepreecha, from Chiang Mai University in Thailand, Lee is working to create an archive of stories, interviews, and facts that tell the story of Hmong in Asia and in the diasporic west. The archive will preserve individual oral histories and contextualize them in the full and nuanced world history to which they belong. Lee hopes that oral resources will help educate Hmong–Americans and others alike about what brought so many Hmong people to the United States.
Lee is a founding member of the Hmong Studies Consortium, established in 2009 as a collaboration between UMN and UW–Madison. The consortium organizes a biennial international conference, which shares stories and research on Hmong heritage. Lee hosted the 2013 conference at UMN and emphasizes the importance Minnesota’s role is in preserving Hmong history.
The University of Minnesota has a “very long history of studying and working with the Hmong.” Lee points to the work of professors Bruce Downing and Tim Dunnigan, now both retired, who “made historic efforts in Hmong studies” when they hosted the very first conference on the Hmong in 1981. The proceedings from that and another conference that they hosted two years later made up the first two volumes about the Hmong in the West. Lee sees her efforts “as a continuation of the groundwork that's already laid out by Downing, Dunnigan, and others.” She sees the University of Minnesota as the pioneering site in Hmong studies and wants to ensure that it retains that status.
Lee has her hands full juggling these and other ambitious projects, including helping her students create their own platforms for collecting oral histories. She also is in the midst of writing a biography of her father, telling his story about their journey to the United States, and his struggle to leave the country he loved so dearly.