Minnesota. It's cold, it's white. There aren't a lot of Asian Americans like me (first and second generation Korean Americans.) However, my home state hosts the largest population of Hmong Americans in the United States.
May Lee-Yang, a good friend and collaborator, is one of these Hmong Americans from Minnesota. She is an incredibly talented playwright, actor, performance artist, writer, producer, etc. She's a real Jane-of-all-trades.
We often joke about how she's a "jungle" Asian and I'm a "fancy" Asian. Yes, I know, it doesn't sound right. Some readers may be offended. But, as May is one of the pioneers in the Hmong American Theater movement, she believes this title better explains who the Hmong are to a public that don't know much about them at all.
Recently we talked about May's experience as a "jungle" Asian.
Naomi Ko: May, as a "Jungle Asian," what do you want the greater Asian American nation to know about you?
May Lee-Yang: [Laughs] Well, maybe the first thing, is to know that we exist. The first sixteen days I was in Los Angeles, I basically had to explain what Hmong was at least once a day. I wasn't trying to educate people, but they had no idea who we were. Everyone thought I was Japanese from classmates to Uber drivers. So first of all, we exist. There are lots of Asians besides Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians.
N: For Angry Asian Man's readers, can you explain who the Hmong are?
M: Hmong, so if you want google Hmong, it's spelled H-M-O-N-G. Hmong people are tribal folks who lived throughout Asia and Southeast Asia. The majority of Hmong people who live in United States are from Laos. We came here as refugees from the Vietnam War. Those are the facts. I suppose my commentary is that people have a hard time figuring us out. We're like the Jewish people of the Asian community. We are always wandering around and steeped in a lot of culture. Some people like to say we're nomads, which is the totally romantic way to describe us because we've been kicked out of every country we lived in. It's always interesting when I tell Asian people who the Hmong are. [Some responses are] "You guys are really barbaric, you guys lived in the Jungle, you guys didn't have a written language until the 1950s."
N: That's some major side-eye from the "fancy" Asians.
M: Yes! The fancy Asians always ask me, "weren't your parents mad at you for not becoming a doctor?" No, they're happy that we're alive! That's real.
N: Truth. When I tell other Asian Americans, especially those in Los Angeles that I'm from Minnesota, they freak out. At least my immigrant parents saw snow growing up in Korea. But for you guys, your family lived in the tropics. How was the transition for you and your family?
M: I actually don't think the snow was a big issue. It was the lack of rice. We came to Minnesota because the Lutherans brought us here. My family ended up in a super, super small town in Minnesota, and they lived there for six months. My mom said they moved to St. Paul because they wanted to eat rice. Their sponsor brought them a box of Uncle Ben's rice and my mom said we needed a one hundred pound bag of rice. So I haven't heard a lot of stories of the Hmong people struggling with the cold. We're used to adjusting.
N: You mentioned earlier that other Asians asked why your parents are cool with your career as an artist. How does it feel to talk with other Asian American artists about your career and the path you took to get there?
M: For one thing, it's probably one of the reasons why I can live as an artist because there's not many of us. This is not coming from a place of arrogance, but reality. Everything that Hmong Americans create now is considered as Hmong American history. There has never been a precedent. Whether we choose to do it or not, we're pioneering this field. Hmong American Literature, Hmong American Theater didn't exist until 1994.
N: OH HEYYYYYYY!
M: [Laughs] It's true though. I get paid to be Hmong. When I talk to other Asians, even though we share, for the most part, a similar skin color, other Asians don't understand where we [Hmong] come from. I think there's also an unspoken rule of who's on the totem pole. I think Southeast Asians are lumped at the bottom for many things like economics, skin tone, education, etc. What's fascinating is that all of these "disadvantages" make me sexy as an artist. I'm a first generation refugee, born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and my parents didn't have opportunities. I'm part of the first generation of Hmong American writers and theater people. It sounds so pretentious, but it's true.
N: I don't think it's pretentious, it's pretty sweet.
M: That's good.
N: In Minnesota, many K-12 students are required to read The Latehomecomer. We learn a lot about the history of the Hmong, such as the Vietnam War, crossing the Mekong, and the refugee camps in Thailand. There are many books and plays about it. How do you juggle your role as an artist to make sure the Hmong history and culture is being portrayed, while also telling more contemporary stories?
M: I think one of the most challenging things about telling a story about an unrepresented community is that people assume there is only one narrative. I remember when I was starting out as an artist, people told me my experience was not "Hmong," and there were only a couple of narratives that were. When I joke about how I'm the Lazy Hmong Woman, people ask me, "how does that happen?" That is what inspired me to write my own story. That's why it's so important to write your own story. It is so easy for people to stereotype the Hmong experience. All of our experiences are so unique.
I think one of the other challenges is that people don't know how to market my work. They know they want me in the room, but then say they need an all Hmong audience. It's a comedy show! Get people who like comedy, women, or nerds.
When I was doing my porn star show, this guy said he was shocked. He told me he thought I was going to do a show about crossing the Mekong, or something. I told him, it's called, "Ten Reasons Why I'd Be a Bad Porn Star." How'd you think that? Did you think my parents became porn stars to survive the camps?
N: The true immigrant sacrifice.
M: Yea. Does that mean it becomes a play about sex trafficking?
N: You were recently in L.A. What's the difference between artists from Minnesota and California?
M: It was good. Interesting. I met a lot of filmmakers. They had a hard time figuring out what theater could be. They had the least exposure to it. I asked if I could bring my shows to the Central Valley, because it's important that the Hmong community there sees my stuff. One guy said, "you should become a YouTube star, then we'll bring you back."
N: I know you're a writer, performance artist, playwright, actor -- you do it all. Why the stage? What makes the stage a critical part for your work instead of things like youtube?
M: The opportunity to interact with the audience. Most of my shows have no fourth wall. You come to my show, you could be drinking some wine with me. And this has happened in real life. Or I could be selling you sex toys, which has also happened in real life. You get to play. I get to play with audience members and they get to play with me.
It also offers a deeper experience. We can have a conversation. Sometimes onstage, sometimes in the lobby. Theater is interesting. There's not a safety net. People think they can come to the theater and sit quietly, and observe us. Like voyeurs. But I like how we can interact and talk about hard issues. Plus I have to step up my game. You know when people are not interested. As a writer, performer, and producer I think about how I can be engaging. When people read my poem and don't like it, well, that's it. With theater, they're stuck with you one or two hours.
Find more about May Lee-Yang's work at www.hmonglaofriendshipplay.com.
Naomi Ko is a writer, actor, and director. She loves Minnesota. She loves snow. She loves water.