I’m a Berkeleyan: Julie Thao is finding ways to heal trauma in her Hmong community

Julie Thao on campus wearing graduation sash.

Graduating Berkeley scholar reflects on the impact of violence and war on her family, and why Hmong American history is ignored. (Photo courtesy of Julie Thao)

When I think about what my family has been through as Hmong Americans, and war refugees from Laos, I get upset.

Not because of what happened to them, but the fact that their story, and our history, has been ignored. I can remember there being just one sentence in my entire high school history book dedicated to the experiences of Hmong people. It didn’t feel fair.

Archival photo of Hmong troops in Laos.

Archival photo of anti-communist Hmong troops in Laos in 1961. (Public domain photo)

Many people have never heard of the “Secret War,” when America’s CIA used Hmong people in Laos to fight against communism in the area, during the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of Hmong died in this war, and thousands more were displaced after the U.S. withdrew their support from Laos, ceding control to communist forces.

A lot of people don’t even know that the Hmong are from Laos and group us into other Asian ethnicities. As a freshman at UC Berkeley, I remember attending an outreach event where a fellow student asked me, “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Sacramento,” I answered. “No, I mean, where are you really from?” the student responded. To cut to the chase, I asked if he was referring to my ethnicity. And he was.

When I told him I was Hmong, he said, “Oh, well, I don’t know what that is.” And he walked away.

As a first-generation Hmong American, that moment really made me feel invisible. But it also made me want to make sure people know more about the experiences of Hmong people.

We have a unique and nuanced history that others can learn from.

I, myself, was born and raised in South Sacramento, the middle child of 10 kids. We lived in a four-bedroom house. In a lot of ways, we grew up in a typical Hmong American household.

Childhood photo of Julie Thao and her sister in kindergarten.

Thao (right) and her sister Linda (left) in kindergarten. “My dad took this photo. He would attend all my school promotions. He is my biggest supporter.” (Photo courtesy of Julie Thao)

Our family was very communal. The older kids would take care of the younger kids while our parents were out working long hours, helping cook meals, do school work and put each other to sleep.

We didn’t really read books at bedtime, but my grandparents would tell us Hmong folk tales about tigers and mythic creatures that like to eat human flesh. I didn’t know at the time, but that was really my first introduction into hearing about Hmong stories and folklores.

I had a lot of Hmong friends in Sacramento that I could relate to because we all had similar households. Big families and parents that were refugees.

My parents met while staying in a refugee camp in Thailand, after escaping the war in Laos. They came to America in 1980 and moved to Seattle. They grew fruits and vegetables to sell at markets to make a living. My mother would also knit and sell paj ntaub, a Hmong traditional cloth.

A few years later, they moved to Sacramento to settle down where most of my siblings were born. My mom assembled window blinds, and my father worked as a truck driver transporting shipments across the state. I remember taking long road trips with my dad when he would drive to the Bay Area or other parts of California.

Sometimes he would talk about what life was like in Laos, but as a little kid, I really wasn’t as curious about it at the time. I feel like he was trying to show me how much he was struggling, working long hours driving day and night. He would always stress how important getting a good education was.

Julie Thao and her family at her high school graduation.

Thao said her family have given her strength through her academic career. Here, her extended family shows support at her high school graduation, in spring 2017, when she was selected as valedictorian of Valley High School in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Julie Thao)

As I got older, my father and I became more distant. A traditional Hmong man, he practiced a lot of patriarchal traditions that I just didn’t understand. For instance, in Hmong families, once the woman marries, they no longer have family outside of their husband’s side of the family.

In high school, I feel like I even resented him for a while. He was always very aggressive, and I didn’t fit into the gender roles and that mold of a submissive young Hmong woman. I didn’t know why he didn’t understand that. And it wasn’t until I came to Berkeley that I began to really understand him.

Through different Asian American and ethnic studies classes, and conversations with other like-minded students and professors, I was exposed to the history and trauma behind the intergenerational conflict that impacts Hmong American families to this day.

Julie Thao wearing a Cal graduation sash.

Thao will graduate this week with a bachelor’s in Asian American and Asian diaspora studies, and a minor in global public health. (Photo courtesy of Julie Thao)

Hmong history is a history of war, genocide and displacement.

When the U.S. left Vietnam, Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia after the war in the 1970s, they left many Hmong, Cambodian and Vietnamese people helpless to the communist regimes. Due to their involvement in the war, Hmong people in Laos were executed and are still killed by the government to this day.

We don’t talk about what happened to Hmong people as a genocide, because Hmong are often bunched with other Asian groups. The Hmong diaspora from China to Laos, and further into refugee camps in Thailand and into areas like the U.S., France and Argentina, is not often talked about. The impact of this displacement is still experienced in Hmong communities.

Personally, knowing this history helped me to understand where my father was coming from. He has since told me about how he was forced to continually move away from violent areas in Laos throughout his adolescence. He was never really able to process things that were happening because he was just trying to survive, as people around him kept dying: That has made him very angry over the years.

Julie Thao's parents.

Thao said her parents have shared their refugee stories and have supported her journey at Berkeley. “My mom always calls to see if I am eating, sleeping, and studying.” (Photo courtesy of Julie Thao)

For a lot of Hmong refugees, it is hard to share their stories because they are so traumatic. My parents experienced family and friends sometimes dying right in front of them. They keep those stories locked up inside. They carry that pain and struggle that can lead to conflict with the younger generation — their children.

Being a first-generation Hmong American, I want to break that cycle. I think knowing about those experiences help us to heal.

Recently, I was surprised to win the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Award from Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies Community Relations Committee, specifically for an essay I wrote about my mother. With encouragement from faculty like Fae Myenne Ng and Khatharya Um, I am beginning to see how important it is to share my family’s story.

My mom actually asked me to keep records of my writings to share with my siblings and said, “When I’m gone, no one is going to be able to tell my story except for you.”

I’m honored to have that responsibility.

Childhood photo of Julie Thao and her four sisters

Thao (left) and her sisters at the annual Hmong New Year’s celebration in Sacramento. Thao’s mom would dress them up in traditional Hmong clothing to enjoy delicious food and activities. (Photo courtesy of Julie Thao)

Although Berkeley has opened my mind to this history, I do think there is still a lack of representation of Hmong, and other Southeast Asian, curriculum on campus. Also, when I started going to Berkeley in 2017, there were maybe around 15 of us on campus. While that number has grown since then, I think there is a lot more work that can be done.

Julie though and members of the Hmong student association at Berkeley.

Thao (third from the left) with members from the Hmong Student Association at UC Berkeley. “They are my home away from home,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Julie Thao)

As outreach coordinator for Berkeley’s Hmong Student Association, I have worked to recruit prospective Hmong high school students to consider Berkeley. And as a member of Berkeley’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Standing Committee, I give recommendations to Berkeley’s admissions office to reach prospective Hmong students throughout the country. I want Hmong students to be a part of Berkeley’s growth in student diversity.

With the support of professor Winston Tseng, I also have been able to merge my interest in public health with my work in the Hmong community as a youth advocate at Butte County’s Hmong Cultural Center. I’ve researched the mental health trauma that Hmong families experience because of the war and provide the necessary resources to tackle those issues.

Berkeley has helped me to find my passion in helping to uplift the stories and experiences of my Hmong community. After I graduate this spring, I hope I can find opportunities to continue to do that — because the more we are represented and understood, the more we can help each other heal from the trauma we uniquely experience.