Hmong Youth, American Football, and the Cultural Politics of Ethnic Sports Tournaments



For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, ToM is featuring two excerpts from the new anthology, Asian American Sporting Cultures from New York University Press. In the first, Constancio Arnoldo Jr. examines Filipino ideas about masculinity and identity through boxer Manny Pacquiao. (See also our recent post on the intersection between boxing, Los Angeles, and the Philippines: “From Villa to Pacquiao: Filipino Boxing in L.A. and the Power of the Transnational Punch”) In our second excerpt, Chia Youyee Vang explores the intersection of Hmong American identity and sport in the United States.

The December 12, 2011, edition of Sports Illustrated ran a story titled “How to Become an American.” It traced the migration of Hmong refu- gees to the small town of Magazine, Arkansas, and celebrated the fact that despite being “tiny Asians,” Hmong boys had utilized an unexpected channel to assimilate into American society—playing football. Sixteen- year-old Charly Moua was quoted saying, “I like football because I can knock over bigger kids.”

While engaging with this supposed anomaly, the article went between transnational spaces and global circuits by discussing the United States’ secret war in Laos and the Hmong people’s subsequent displacement. It subsequently contrasted the experiences of refugee parents with second-generation youth in a part of the country with few Asian Americans. The presence of Hmong boys on J. D. Leftwich High School’s football team was said to have not only “created an intriguing image for the Magazine program but also forced coaches to radically rethink the physical configuration of a football player.” The parents’ hard work and sacrifices raising more than 120,000 chickens for Tyson Foods was juxtaposed against the boys’ unexpected contributions to the school’s state championship in 2010. The article concluded with Charly assertively stating, “There’s a tradition now here with Asian kids, and the parents are really behind us, and we try to do well, because of all they [parents] went through to get here.”[1]

Unlike the highly skilled Asian immigrants who entered to fill U.S. jobs with a shortage of American workers,[2] images in popular media highlighted the Hmong’s agrarian background and illiteracy, welfare dependency, low education attainment, and inability to assimilate. The achievements of Time magazine’s 1987 Asian American whiz kids were seemingly beyond reach for Hmong refugee youth. Excluded from the “model minority myth” of high-achieving Americans of Asian descent, they became part of the “Other Asian.”[3] They were seen as failed and unlikely Asian American subjects as a result of their segmented assimilation toward the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.[4] Unlike the earlier post-1965 wave of professionals, most Hmong refugees possessed limited transferable skills.

Like Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who struggled to adjust to their new environments, Hmong were racialized as dangerous, prone to crime, and uncontrollable. Consequently, if they entered the public consciousness, it would generally be through academic studies of youth violence and media coverage of crime related activities. In opposition to such racializations, the Sports Illustrated story turned a new page for Hmong Americanization. An examination of Hmong American identity formation through the cultural politics of sports demonstrates the strategic ways in which they are defying popular images of Hmong American boys and young men as gangbangers or thugs and girls and women as docile victims of patriarchal Hmong culture. Sport opens up ways to reshape racial dynamics and offer other renditions of individual and collective identities.[5]

Some of the hundreds of participants at the 10th-annual Hmong New Year Celebration in downtown Chico, California, pose; The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Some of the hundreds of participants at the 10th-annual Hmong New Year Celebration in downtown Chico, California, pose; The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Migration and Place Making

U.S. empire building is intimately connected to Hmong and Hmong American history. The Moua family settled in the U.S. as a direct result of American imperialism in Southeast Asia during the Cold War era. Thus, Hmong America must be situated in the time of the Vietnam War that shaped their spaces of identity making in the United States. From the early 1960s through the end of the Vietnam War, the Hmong became entangled in U.S. covert operations in Laos in support of the war effort in Vietnam. Supplied and trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Hmong clandestine army numbered a few hundred in the early 1960s and increased to more than 40,000 by the late 1960s. They faced severe losses during and after the war. An estimated 17,000 died on the battlefield and more than 50,000 civilians perished.[6]

Following U.S. disengagement from Southeast Asia, those who had collaborated with Americans feared for their lives and sought a way out. The exodus began as a trickle as military elites made what many thought was a temporary escape from the risk of retribution, and grew in scale and level of desperation as conditions rapidly deteriorated. Thousands crossed the Mekong River to seek asylum in Thailand and were eventually administered into United Nations–sponsored refugee camps. Since 1975, more than 130,000 Hmong refugees have settled in the United States and by 2010 the Hmong American population had increased to more than 260,000.[7]

As writers like Lisa Lowe have pointed out Asian Americans can often trace their history in the U.S. back to colonial occupation or military intervention; Circa 1963, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
As writers like Lisa Lowe have pointed out many Asian Americans can  trace their history in the U.S. back to colonial occupation or military intervention. This is especially true of Hmong Americans; [Vietnamese woman and children and American military advisor sit amid ruins of village in South Vietnam which was burned by government troops because it was thought to have been a Viet Cong stronghold], circa 1963, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
U.S. refugee resettlement policies initially dispersed them through- out the country, but through chain migration they, in due course, established ethnic enclaves in several key states, including California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. As displaced people with limited resources and few transferable skills, most Hmong initially con- fronted tremendous difficulties adapting to life in the United States. While poverty, isolation, language issues, racism, and violence plagued their lives, a strong sense of ethnic identity and community building emerged parallel to these daily struggles. Movement across state borders over the last few decades resulted in more Hmong Americans residing in the Midwest than any other region. The Twin Cities (Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota) became the largest concentration of Hmong in the nation. In small towns like Wausau, Wisconsin, Hmong Americans constitute 10 percent of the population.

Although California has the largest Hmong population, as people of Asian descent, they blend in more easily with the state’s diverse Asian demographic composition. On the contrary, Hmong represent the largest Asian groups in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which have not only enabled them to amass political power but also changed the racial landscape of predominantly white Midwestern cities. Because the smaller places in usually designated as Asian American destination cities, the Hmong had become representatives of Asian America. The phenomenon of mi- grating to Southern states to work in the poultry industry, as the Moua family had, began in the early 2000s.[8] Driven by entrepreneurial spirit and dreams of owning land, hundreds flocked to the South to purchase poultry farms and start cattle businesses, thus creating many small and mostly rural communities consisting of extended family members.

The adaptation of Vietnam War refugees (those from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) has been a significant topic among academic scholarship and community studies within the literature on immigrant incor- poration during the last few decades.[9] The knowledge produced in the immediate postwar period followed what Yên Lê Espiritu called “res- cue and liberation.”[10] These earlier studies characterized them as helpless and demoralized refugees who were victims of the Vietnam War in need of care to be provided by Americans. Researchers often portrayed refugees as passive subjects to be rescued, focusing on a moral responsibility of the West to lend a helping hand to refugees “voting with their feet” to escape communism. Studies after arrival then shifted to refugees as problems to be solved.[11]

Gang involvement and delinquency became subjects of many scholarly studies and popular media repre- sentation that further contributed to this racialization of refugees. Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film Gran Torino is an example of the ways in which popular culture serves as space for Hmong to negotiate and perform ethnic identity. Rather than seen as embracing the white middle-class values associated with the model minority, Hmong Americans and other Southeast Asian Americans are stereotyped as problem minorities holding on to their traditions.[12]

The very problematic, but admittedly entertaining, "Gran Torino"
The very problematic, but admittedly entertaining, “Gran Torino”

Hmong American contributions to U.S. society during the short time that they have been in the country are notable in the areas of education, business, and civic engagement, but these have been overlooked in social science research’s and the popular media’s emphases on problems. Since Choua Lee’s pioneering election to the Saint Paul school board in 1991, Hmong in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have continued to successfully run for local and state political offices. Educational attainment has enabled many to hold important positions in both the public and private sectors. Moreover, their concentration in certain U.S. locations has helped to ensure that other Americans have thriving jobs and businesses. The scholarship on them has recently begun to shift to better reflect the dynamic Hmong American community, but there is a gap in knowledge about the diverse ways in which Hmong Americans are reproducing ethnic culture and re-creating new identities in diasporic locations. This analysis of sports participation through an insider lens makes visible the development over time of a distinctive Hmong Americanization process that has remained under the radar of researchers.

via MPRNews, St. Paul, Minnesota,
via MPRNews, St. Paul, Minnesota,

Role of Sport in U.S. Society and Asian Americans

If sport reflects culture and patriotism, then what does Americans’ obsession with it suggest about American culture and citizenship? Commitment to professional sports and demonstration of preference for one team over another is ubiquitous in American society. The enormous sports memorabilia and team uniform industries in addition to the millions of dollars that spectators spend each year makes participation in some ways necessary to prove one’s Americanness. Americans’ daily fascination with sport plays an intimate role in making kids from all walks of life dream of being the next star. Consequently, the role of sport in U.S. society has shifted to reflect an increase in organized, adult- controlled activities and a decrease in unstructured pickup games at the park.[13]

From professional teams, collegiate teams, and K–12 school teams to select and recreational neighborhood programs, it is easy to make the case that sport is an integral part of U.S. society. Delaney and Madigan write, “Sport is as much a part of American society and culture as are other social institutions such as family, religion, politics, economics and education. . . . Athletic contests are important to the socialization of youth, to the integration of disparate groups and social classes, to physical and mental well-being, and to the enhancement of community pride.”[14] American society may be “inundated with images and ideas about sport,” but different segments of the U.S. population experience sport differently. The heterogeneous Asian American communities, accordingly, have different relations to sport.[15]

Significant barriers exist that have resulted in fewer Asian Americans participating in sport. The problem, as Kathleen S. Yep demonstrated, is the “simultaneity of hyper-racialization and de-racialization in sports discourse” where different racial groups were positioned in relation to each other in the broader society.[16] Asian American athletes are treated as “novelties” and prevalent racism in sports programs deters them from participating.[17] However, there is, as Yep and España-Maram demonstrate, a longer historical engagement with mainstream sport. On the other end of the spectrum, Asian American men, in particular, have historically been regarded as weak and physically nonnormative (Thangaraj 2015). As David L. Eng contended, “the Asian American male is both materially and physically feminized within the context of the larger U.S. cultural imaginary.”[18]

This has had an enduring impact on how athletic institutions view Asian American abilities, which has likely contributed to Asian American parents discouraging their children from participation in certain sports. The latter is important since it has been found that parents influence the sport participation rates of children “by serving as role models, providers of experience, and interpreters of experience by transmitting values and norms of sport participation.”[19] The strongest predictor of participation is the value that parents place on sport participation. If parents do not value the role of sports in their children’s lives, then they would not support their children taking part in sports programs. For example, Soumya Palreddy’s study of South Asian American sport involvement found that acculturation significantly contributed to parents seeing value in sports.[20] Moreover, sometimes parents come with high commitment to sports, but they are not necessarily main- stream U.S. sports.

Patsy Mink became the first Asian American Congressional member in the 1960s; Laura Patterson, [Representative Patsy Mink announces the formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus at a press conference with (left to right) Representatives Don Edwards and Norman Mineta, Guam Delegate Robert Underwood, and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Neil Abercrombie], 1994, Roll Call portion of CQ Roll Call Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Patsy Mink became the first Asian American Congressional member in the 1960s here she   announces the formation of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus at a press conference with (left to right) Representatives Don Edwards and Norman Mineta, Guam Delegate Robert Underwood, and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Neil Abercrombie;  Laura Patterson, May 20, 1994, Roll Call portion of CQ Roll Call Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
The valuation Asian American students place on sports is also im- pacted by the high expectations their parents have in regard to their academic pursuits. School sports may impede educational progress of ethnic minority youth who are already academically marginalized be- cause it distracts them from their studies.[21] Interviews with Hmong American youth reveal that Hmong parents do believe participating in sport would negatively impact their schoolwork. John, a university sophomore, shared that his father refused to allow him to play on the high school soccer team because he did not believe John could do well in both.[22] Interestingly, however, he was permitted to play with his cousin’s team that competed in Hmong tournaments. John explained his father’s rationale: “My dad thought that if I played for the school, I would just go join gangs and not keep up with my homework. When I play with my cousins, who are all older than me, he thinks it’s fine because they will look after me when he’s not around” (interview with author, 2014).

Youa concurs with John. Her parents worried about letting her join the volleyball team during high school. As a high-achieving student, she was able to convince them to let her play. The condition was that if she received any grade lower than an A minus, she would quit the team. Not only was Youa able to maintain a high grade-point average, but she also excelled on the court. As the only Asian American player on the team, she was voted most valuable player during freshman year by her all-white teammates. Youa recalled:

Because we live in a pretty white neighborhood and there are few Asian people, I guess my parents were afraid that I wouldn’t be accepted. Be- fore I joined sports, I was quiet and no one really noticed me except my teachers because I was a good student. I love volleyball and I had played with my cousins at Hmong tournaments so I was actually better than a lot of the white girls I played with. They were of course all taller than me but I had a lot of skills that they didn’t. When all the other parents started to compliment about me to my parents during games, they started to understand why I wanted to play. It’s like they don’t see me as just a quiet Asian girl who’s smart. It made me feel good, like I was just one of them.” (interview with author, 2014)

Youa’s experience is complex but not out of the ordinary because sport has been found to play a significant role in immigrants’ adaptation to their new culture.[23] Though studies have found that first- and second- generation Asian American high school students are more likely to be involved in academic school-based extracurricular activities than in school sports, Youa’s ability to outperform her peers enables her to be treated as “one of them.”[24] The tension she struggles with stems from the social and cultural perceptions of Asian Americans as “quiet” and “not athletic,” which can influence how Asian Americans perceive themselves and subsequently influence their decisions about which school activities to pursue.[25]

Asian American women, in particular, are invisible in sport literature in part because of simplistic stereotypes of them as submissive and subservient.[26] Unlike Youa, Nhoua grew up in inner-city Milwaukee and attended a racially diverse public school. With the reputation of being able to “play soccer like the boys,” Nhoua was named an all- conference player throughout her high school career, which contributed to her positive outlook and school pride. She continued to compete in Hmong tournaments while in college and led a team of mostly Hmong American young women along with several Hispanic/Latina team members (interview with author, 2008).

Participation in school athletic programs contributed to Hmong youth’s sense of belonging in those specific contexts. Linsanity, or the excitement over professional basketball player Jeremy Lin, in 2012 certainly created an Asian American hypervisibility in sport that also heightened debates about race, ethnicity, and gender. Many Asian Americans are passionate basketball players who participate in ethnic specific and pan-Asian-American tournaments each year (see Thangaraj 2013; Chin 2012). Whether in small pickup games, rec leagues, or the National Basketball Association, Asian American basketball players outside co-ethnic or racial spaces have not been taken seriously. Lin’s success on the courts made a dent in the stereotypes against Asian athletes in general.[27] More importantly, as Kathleen S. Yep articulated regarding Lin, “In many ways, Linsanity created opportunities. It made transparent the perception and construction of heteronormative Asian Ameri- can masculinities in mainstream discourse. . . . [Sport] has been used in specific ways to regulate and empower Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.”[28]

Although his rise to stardom was certainly a phenomenon that Hmong boys and men who are sports fans followed, few interviewees mentioned him as their role model. In fact, when asked about their role models, interviewees frequently mentioned other Hmong Americans they knew personally or mainstream sport stars.[29] Although Hmong Americans embrace mainstream U.S. sport and normative sporting heroes on many levels, they still create, embrace, and desire their own pantheon of co-ethnic heroes.

Hmong football players via;
Hmong American football players via;

Embracing America’s Game

Why have Hmong youth become fascinated with American football? Football is said to strike a most responsive chord in the American psyche; indeed, “no other American sport consistently draws fans in the numbers that are attracted to football.”[30] At the same time that the boys in Magazine, Arkansas, made news headlines, other Hmong American high school football players were noticed. In Snellville, Georgia, Brook- wood High School’s kicker Erick Yang’s change from soccer to football made him an “overnight sensation.” Erick is quoted, “I never knew foot- ball would be so much fun. Yes, I’d love to play college football. I just find football more exciting than soccer. There are more people at the games, and I love the adrenaline rush.”[31]

In Wausau, Wisconsin, D.C. Everest High School’s star safety, Jerry Lee, was the keynote speaker at the city’s Hmong History Month luncheon. Unlike Erick, who came to football later, Jerry started in middle school. Jerry’s invitation to be the luncheon speaker is an unlikely blending of what is Hmong and American because “American football and Hmong history do not often get paired together.”[32] Like Erick Yang, Sacramento, California’s Grant High placekicker, Charlie Vue, did not play football until high school, but he became an effective player. His coach stated, “The kid never played football and never kicked before. He’s been so terrific in his first two years.”[33] Significant in these experiences is the greater attention that these athletes receive playing football, which generally draws more fans than other high school sports. As “overnight successes,” they have the potential to offer more visibility as role models both on and off the field. Although placekickers are not seen with the positive valence of masculinity to the same degree as players at other positions where there is much more frequent and intense contact, these players were now a part of an “imagined community” (Anderson 1991) of football players, where they took pleasure in the masculine ethos and its respective positive valence of toughness.

Acceptance of football has led more boys and young men to the game. In Saint Paul, at least a couple of Hmong players are on the high school football roster and in schools with high Hmong concentration like Harding and Johnson High on the East Side, nearly a quarter of the names are Hmong.[34] Two Hmong Americans are football coaches in the Twin Cities. At Saint Paul’s Harding Senior High School, Elliot Vang was hired as assistant coach to help “introduce Hmong to America’s game,” according to one area newspaper.[35]

While attracting athletes from other cultures to the game was said to be important, both Vang and the head coach, Dave Zeitchick, emphasized that Hmong identity was not the primary factor. Vang stated, “I think I was hired as a coach, first and foremost. . . . I do not think the fact that I was Hmong had anything to do with it. Now that I’m here, I do want to pave the way and show the Hmong population that there are ways to get into athletics and achieve success.” Though 20 percent of Harding High School’s 1,009 students were Hmong, Dave Zeitchick stated, “I didn’t think about the significance of him being Hmong.” Vang’s statement is significant—he goes on to say that he wants to use organized school athletic programs to encourage Hmong boys and young men to participate in sports. Although his ethnic identity may not have played a role in his hiring, the increase in Hmong boys joining high school teams can be attributed to a wider acceptance of football. To be sure, college football is on the minds of young Hmong Americans and they continue to chase NFL dreams no matter how distant they may seem.[36]

What are the pleasures Hmong boys are getting from playing such a physical game? How is this part of and against the “thug” racialization? Long did not want to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who played club soccer at the highest level. He was a solid soccer player, but the increasingly competitive nature of U.S. youth soccer meant that he would not be given much playing time. When he entered high school in 2012 in a suburb of Milwaukee, he tried out for the football team. Long explained:

When I was in middle school one of my best friend’s brother played for the high school football team so I went to some of their games. It was so exciting! It’s like the whole school was there. The band played and everyone at the game seemed to be having so much fun. I had been to my brother’s soccer games and it’s mostly just the families of the players there. I dreamt of being able to run down the football field and having hundreds of people cheering for me! (interview with author, 2014)

The number of spectators certainly set football apart from soccer, but it is clear from Long’s observation that the resources schools dedicate to football, like the school band’s presence, create a certain kind of excitement that is lacking at soccer games.

In conversations with several parents of Hmong football players during a game in Saint Paul, they enthusiastically shared why they support their sons. “I got hooked on football while in college. My roommate, who was white, watched it all the time. I think it’s great that my son’s playing football. Unlike me, he has so much school pride. When I was in high school, the Hmong kids, we didn’t even care about homecoming and things like that,” exclaimed Pao, a man in his mid-40s. Mao, a mother of five sons and one daughter, was watching her second-oldest play. She revealed that she knew very little about football before her son joined the team. She said, “My boys are so crazy about football! They are not like other Hmong boys who prefer soccer. I still don’t really understand everything after two years of watching. I know something good has happened when I hear the people around me cheer. Sometimes they are quite rowdy, but that’s okay because we’re all here to cheer for our team.” Mao’s husband, Bill, added, “I like that Hmong parents are now coming to watch the kids play. We feel like it’s our school, our team, and not just coming to school and going home” (interviews with author, 2014). These comments are illustrative of the changing perspectives of Hmong Americans about the role of organized sports as a means of staking out their Americanness. What these individuals expressed reinforces Charly Moua’s earlier point about the importance of parental support and demonstrates Hmong Americans’ multigenerational interaction with U.S. sports.


Ethnicity and Sports Tournaments

To understand the increasing popularity of American football among Hmong Americans, it is equally important to place it within the context of Hmong American ethnic sports tournaments and explore the ways in which they influence the reconfiguration of ethnic boundaries.[37] When the refugees first arrived in the U.S., many were isolated and yearned to be with others from their ethnic group. As people settled in various parts of the country, they began to organize sports tournaments that served multiple purposes. These sports festivals stitch Hmong com- munities together and enable organizers and attendees to exert ethnic pride, negotiate gender, and demonstrate a sense of belonging in a multitude of U.S. communities as reflected by state-based and city-based teams. As such, they are one of the ways in which Hmong Americans construct “imagined communities.”[38]

Although these events frequently occur at public parks and county fairgrounds, the attendees are almost exclusively Hmong Americans. Tournaments are often held on U.S. holidays, most commonly Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. This practice begs us to rethink the extent to which these tournaments become a site for Hmong Americans’ exertion of ethnic power and control over their cultural meanings and negotiation of national spaces. Instead of participating in mainstream activities surrounding these holidays, Hmong tournaments become a site for challenging the structure of American society and creating new positions of dominance within Asian America.

In Midwestern states with large populations, tournaments are held on weekends as soon as the grounds dry in the spring and they may occur as late as October. In warmer areas like the California Central Valley, they may take place almost year-round. Tournaments may be sports competitions alone or they may be a part of New Year celebrations and other community events. Event names range from Saint Paul’s “Hmong Freedom Celebration and Sports Festival” to the “Asian Memorial Festival” in Green Bay, Wisconsin, “Hmong Michigan Soccer Tournament” in Fraser, Michigan, “NW Arkansas and NE Oklahoma Hmong New Year Sports Tournament” in Rose, Oklahoma, “Hmong Southeast Puavpheej Easter Spring Festival” in Newton, North Carolina, and “Hmong International New Year” in Fresno, California.[39]

At the same time that Hmong sports events are used to build ethnic community, they reveal the multiple marginalities that they experience as an ethnic group. They may draw a few hundred people in the case of small towns in southern states to more than 50,000 in locations with large Hmong populations like the Twin Cities and Fresno.

Attendees of small events consist primarily of those from the surrounding communities, but large events appeal to teams and spectators from around the country. Moreover, in recent years, Hmong soccer teams from France, Laos, Thailand, and Australia have competed in the Twin Cities Fourth of July tournament—in the 2014 tournament, 150 teams participated.[40]

Clearly, playing soccer for Hmong men allows them to perform a global cosmopolitanism.[41] The persistent practice of including “Hmong” in event names disrupts Asian American pan- ethnicity, while the sporadic use of “Asian” without “Hmong” connotes Hmong Americans’ power to selectively define themselves. In large Hmong tournaments, ethnic Lao teams have also competed for years, in addition to many teams that included a few non-Hmong players. Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian teams have also occasionally participated. Within the last decade, former refugees from Burma/Myanmar have begun to take part in the Twin Cities tournament.


Although organizers do not exclude other Asian groups, referring to it as a “Hmong” event erases the diverse groups’ involvement. On the contrary, the common use of the term “Asian” in some event titles in Wisconsin represents an underlying power that organizers have by claiming “Asian America” as a Hmong space. Although attended mostly by Hmong Americans, these “Asian” festivals reflect the reality that Hmong are the largest Asian ethnic group in most Wisconsin cities. As indicated earlier, their position at the bottom of the Asian American socioeconomic ladder excludes them from model minority status. As a result of their marginalization in mainstream U.S. society as pan-ethnically Asian American and dislocation within Asian America as a result of their social location as refugee Americans, the sporting contests constitute a crucial means to perform identity in fields of power. The emphasis on “Hmongness” is an illustration of not only ethnocentric viewpoints, but is also is direct response to their positioning within the Asian America landscape. Through the structuring of sporting spaces as almost exclusively Hmong American, isolation serves the purpose of providing a time where they can selectively claim “Asianness” on their own terms.

Parallel to this experience is the sustained popularity of soccer and volleyball among Hmong Americans. While women’s volleyball teams have been an integral part of ethnic tournaments, soccer teams became common only since the early 2000s. Women’s volleyball teams share courts with men’s teams, but as a sport that is viewed as appropriate for women to play, their presence on the court does not create the same tension as soccer. The globalization of soccer makes its appeal to Hmong Americans not surprising. As Eduardo P. Archetti articulated, “[soccer] is a powerful masculine expression of national capabilities and potentialities” (1999: 15).[42]

At most tournaments, women’s teams play only after all of the men’s games have taken place. Veteran soccer player Nhoua described how female competitors are commonly treated by tournament organizers: “It’s so unfair that they [the organizers] make us wait hours to play. They are unorganized and they never start on time. They would tell the women’s teams to be there at a certain hour, but then we would have to wait until a field becomes available. They do not take the women’s teams seriously. Our prizes are ALWAYS less than those for men’s teams” (interview with author, 2014).[43] This disparity in access to time on the sporting pitch reveals how men come to stand in for the diaspora in particular ways in relation to women. Men, through their perceived muscularity and aggression, stand for the strength and resolve of these communities (see Burdsey 2007).

Such procurements come at the expense of relegating women’s sports to a marginalized status. Soccer is consequently no longer the sport of choice for Hmong women, due in part as well to the shift of Hmong girls’ and young women’s interest in flag football. Based on traditional American football, flag football does not emphasize size and physical strength, and instead favors players who can move quickly. Chor explained her shift from soccer to flag football: “My dad said he didn’t want me to look like a boy. Some of the girls who play soccer look tough and they are very strong. In soccer you have to keep running and fighting for the ball, so you do have to be strong” (interview with author, 2012). Her decision was also influenced by her father’s opinion of Hmong women who played soccer. Chor’s decision to find a “safer” sport may explain women’s de- creased interest in soccer, but Nhoua’s frustration revealed that the ways in which tournament organizers treat women’s games likely influenced its decline.

At ethnic tournaments, the number of women’s flag football teams is more numerous than soccer teams. A key question that observers pose is why flag football has grown in popularity among second-generation Hmong Americans. As Kazoua explained, “I play flag football because my brothers play. I used to just watch them, but then I got interested in it and a bunch of my friends and I just formed our own team. I’ve never played soccer but I think soccer is harder” (interview with author, 2014). Although both soccer and flag football require agility, soccer, as Chor stated above, is perceived as more physically demanding than flag foot- ball, thus the latter is considered more appropriate for women and girls.


Flag football allows women to claim an Americanness that is clear and specific. It is said to break barriers because it “gives independence.”44 Players’ improved skills have resulted in spectators as well opponents delivering praise, such as the following Hmong Sports Forum post:

I think that one of the greatest teams of all times is Blitz! They’ve gone so far! They give a good fight and never back down. You can see it on the field how much they wanna win! And their QB is amazing! They play as a team. In some of the women teams, you can spot only a couple of good players. But with blitz, you notice all of them and their plays. I really enjoy watching and playing this team. (female, Aug. 1, 2013 at 8:31 a.m.)[45]

Teenagers and older women play together, which creates opportuni- ties for younger women to have role models. In 2007, when women’s flag football was just starting at Hmong tournaments, Hmong Today reporter Marilyn Vang wrote, “[M]any of the players . . . didn’t play a sport before agreeing to play flag football. . . . Even if these ladies play a tough game, they really are nice and approachable; maybe that’s the difference between male and female football players.”[46] This “nice girls” image may no longer hold sway.

Examining the reasons why reveals that the sport has its own challenges. Asked to rank the top 20 Hmong women’s flag football players, a female player summed it up:

“maybe girls don’t rank each other due to the fact that whatever happens on and off the field doesn’t stay there (IT GETS TOO PERSONAL). LOL [laugh out loud] Creates too much drama with what’s being said about the ranks. SAD to Say but it’s just the truth” (female, Aug. 7, 2013, at 11:12 a.m.).[47]

Other posts further illustrate the contentious reality of Hmong women’s flag football. “I used to coach, sometimes I question their heart. Do they want to play and learn or just want to look good out on the field for guys. As patient as I am it’s hard to teach girls who never learned how to play, play” (male, August 14, 2013, at 10:02 p.m.). Another male commented, “[T]eaching girls how to play football and [getting] them to understand some of it is not easy. Some get it, most never will. . . . A lot of girls also are just there for the social bonding” (male, July 5, 2013, at 11:34 p.m.).

Another contributor to Hmong Sports Forum seems to suggest that Hmong culture and lack of opportunities to play sports are to blame for girls’ ineffectiveness. He writes:

“I would like to see more girls play flag football. . . . I believe the biggest problem is the way girls are brought up in our Hmong culture. I shouldn’t say it’s a ‘problem,’ it’s more like an unfortunate reality. Not enough girls are exposed to sports and many parents don’t support their girls playing sports” (male, Aug. 14, 2013, at 8:46 p.m.).

The “drama” on and off the field partially explains male perspectives about Hmong women’s flag football experiences, but enduring gender inequality within Hmong culture cannot be overlooked. The “unfortunate reality” of girls’ position in many Hmong families limits their access to athletic opportunities, and consequently, they lack the support to play. More troubling is the questioning of girls’ intentions on the field. Kazoua reveals that it is not only male gaze that is of concern to her. She explained, “One time when we finished playing in Oshkosh [Wisconsin], I was walking with three of the girls from my team. We went past some girls who (they were in high heels!) gave us weird looks. I can’t really describe it, but it’s the kind of look that says, ‘You are doing something girls shouldn’t be doing.’ We didn’t care about them. We just kept walking” (interview with author, 2014). Given the “weird looks,” why do Hmong women and girls continue to play flag football? Mai Yia’s remarks are representative of the many who continued to play and recruit new players: “We play because we can! This is America. We can do anything we want. It’s a free country!” (interview with author, 2014).

Managing Hmong American identity often means the collapsing of Hmongness and Americanness through the simultaneous presence of mainstream American sport and Hmong sport. In recent years, ethnic tournaments have incorporated other sports that reflect a desire, on the one hand, to integrate into U.S. society and an interest, on the other, in incorporating an “authentic” Hmong sport. An example of the former is the inclusion of tennis and golf competitions annually at the large Freedom Celebration and Sports Tournament in Saint Paul. Incorporating sports that are considered more elite and upper class not only reflects the increasingly diverse Hmong American population, but also reveals how a segment of the Hmong community attempts to demonstrate a sense of belonging in the United States. Unlike soccer, volleyball, and flag football, elite mainstream sports competitions need to take place away from the main playing fields at Saint Paul’s Como Park. For ex- ample, the golf tournament is held at a golf course miles away. Consequently, these competitions do no attract large numbers of spectators, and thus, they do not incite the same enthusiasm that sports held at the park do, in particular the men’s soccer championship match.




The transformations within ethnic tournaments help to provide context for the ways in which Hmong boys’ and young men’s success at American football has been heralded as the best illustration of how they are becoming American. Exclusion from Asian America compelled them to create Hmong spaces to make sense of their lives. From small gatherings to large community events attended by thousands from across the country, they are spaces for performing ethnicity, but more importantly, they serve as venues for demonstrating cultural, social, economic, and political changes. Vendors selling a plethora of items from Asia and “Hmong food” create an environment that allows visitors to experience “Asia.”

Hmong American boys are making inroads into American high school football teams, and young women are challenging normative gendered behaviors by playing flag football and soccer in schools and at ethnic sports tournaments. As an ethnic minority group without a nation of its own, it is not unusual that much attention is given to individuals whose achievements stand out from Hmong Americans’ ubiquitous characterization in popular and academic discourse as unassimilable illiterate farmers.

Sports are clearly not new to Hmong Americans because of the his- tory of soccer and volleyball in ethnic specific tournaments in states with large Hmong American populations, but these sports lack football’s status. Because football is the quintessential American sport, drawing more spectators than any other, Hmong boys’ embrace of it has changed the landscape of what it means to be Hmong American. It is also a space where they can simultaneously challenge the contours of Americanness, Asian Americanness, and Hmong American–ness. If playing football is a way to demonstrate one’s Americanness, then they have found an opening to do so. In the process, Hmong football players articulate Americanness and its respective sensibilities differently from those who participate in other mainstream and ethnic sports. As a result, we must be attentive to how fluid the categories of Hmong America, Asian America, and America are.

Chia Youyee Vang is Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  She is the director of the Hmong Studies program. Vang is the author of Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010) and Hmong in Minnesota (2008).



1 Charles P. Pierce, “How to Become an American,” Sports Illustrated, December 12, 2011, htm (accessed January 6, 2013).

2 Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown Folk (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

3 Angela Reyes, Language, Identity, and Stereotype among Southeast Asian American Youth: The Other Asia (Mahwah, NJ, and London: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007), 1.

4 Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou, The New Second Generation: Segmented As- similation and Its Variants,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 530 (November 1993): 74–91.

5 See Ben Carrington, “Introduction: Sports Matters,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 35(6) (2012): 961–970; Ben Carrington, Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora (Theory, Culture and Society Book Series), (London and Los Angeles: Sage, 2010).

6 Jane Hamilton-Merritt, The Hmong, the Americans and the Secret War for Laos, 1942–1992 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 334.

7 Chia Youyee Vang, Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 1. France, Canada, and Australia accepted Hmong refugees but in significantly smaller numbers.

8 Ibid., 65.

9 See Mimi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

10 See Yên Lê Espiritu, “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1(1–2) (February/August 2006): 410–433; Yên Lê Espiritu, “The ‘We-Win-Even-When-We-Lose’ Syndrome: U.S. Press Coverage of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the ‘Fall of Saigon,’” American Quarterly 58(2) (June 2006): 329–352.

11 Ibid.

12 See Stacey Lee, “More than ‘Model Minority’ or ‘Delinquents’: A Look at Hmong American High School Students,” Harvard Educational Review 71(3) (2001): 505–528; Ruben G. Rumbaut and Kenji Ima, The Adaptation of Southeast Asian Refugee Youth: A Comparative Study. Final Report to the Office of Resettlement (San Diego: San Diego State University, 1988); Mary Bulcholtz, “Styles and Stereotypes: The Linguistic Negotiation of Identity Among Laotian American Youth,” Pragmatics 14(2/3) (2004): 127–148.

13 Sandra Spickard Prettyman and Brian Lampman (eds.), Learning Culture through Sports: Perspectives on Society and Organized Sports (2d. ed.) (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), ix.

14 Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan, The Sociology of Sports: An Introduction, (Jef- ferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009), 3.

15 See Linda España-Maram, Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working-Class Filipinos and Popular Culture, 1920s-1950s, (New York: Columbia Uni- versity Press, 2006); Sameer Pandya, “The Jeremy Lin Discussion,” ESPN, February 18, 2012, jeremy-lin-discussion, (accessed September 22, 2014); Christina Chin, Hoops, History, and Crossing Over: Boundary Making and Community Building in Japanese American Youth Basketball Leagues (2012), Ph.D. diss., University of California-Los Angeles, O. Regalado, Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Players from Immigration and Internment to the Major Leagues (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013); Stanley Thangaraj, “Com- peting Masculinities: South Asian American Identity Formation in Asian American Basketball Leagues,” South Asian Popular Culture 11(3) (2013); Daniel Burdsey, Stanley Thangaraj, and Rajinder Dudrah, “Playing through Time and Space: Sport and South Asian Diasporas,” South Asian Popular Culture 11(3) (2013).

16 Kathleen S. Yep, “Peddling Sport: Liberal Multiculturalism and the Racial Trian- gulation of Blackness, Chineseness and Native Americanness in Professional Basket- ball,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 35(6) (2012): 971–987.

17 C. Richard King, “Asian Americans in Unexpected Places: Sport, Racism and the Media,” in Prettyman and Lampman (eds.), Learning Culture through Sports, 174–180.

18 David L. Eng, Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Dur- ham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 2.

19 Soumya Palreddy, “Sports Participation among South Asian Americans: The Influence of Acculturation and Value of Sport” (2012), Ph.D. Diss., University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee,, 57.

20 Ibid., 138.

21 Jay Cloakley, Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies (10th ed.) (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004).

22 Throughout the chapter, I use pseudonyms for individuals I interviewed to ensure confidentiality.

23 Cloakley, Sport in Society.

24 Anthony A. Peguero, “Immigrant Youth Involvement in School-Based Extracur- ricular Activities,” Journal of Educational Research 104 (2011): 19–27.

25 Grace Kao, “Group Images and Possible Selves among Adolescents: Linking Stereotypes to Expectations by Race and Ethnicity,” Sociological Forum 15 (2000): 407– 430.

26 Sandra L. Hanson, “Hidden Dragons: Asian American Women and Sport,” Jour- nal of Sport & Social Issues 29(3) (August 2005): 279–312.

27 Sean Gregory, Natalie Tso, and Vanessa Ko, “Linsanity!,” Time, February 27, 2012, 42–45.

28 Kathleen S. Yep, “Linsanity and Centering Sport in Asian American Studies and Pacific Islander Studies,” Amerasia Journal 38(3) (2012): 135–136.

29 It should be noted that although they were not on the cover, the story on Hmong football players appeared in Sports Illustrated slightly more than a year before Jeremy Lin was on the cover in February 2012. Starting in the early 1990s, Hmong boys’ basketball tournaments were organized in community centers and high school gymnasiums. All-Hmong basketball tournaments and leagues were organized by players.

30 Allan Dundes, “Into the End Zone for a Touchdown: A Psychoanalytical Con- sideration of American Football,” in Robert R. Sands (ed.), Anthropology, Sport, and Culture (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1999), 201.

31 See Michael Carvell, “Brookwood’s Erick Yang Is an Overnight Sensation in Football,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, October 13, 2010, sports/high-school/brookwoods-erick-yang-is-an-overnight-sensation-in/nQk5s/ (accessed March 10, 2014); Ben Beitzel, “Kicking Convert: Broncos’ Yang Transitions from Soccer to Football with No Problem,” GWINETT Daily Post, December 1, 2010, yang-transitions-from/ (accessed March 10, 2014). In 2011, Erick Yang was reportedly a walk-on kicker for Michigan State, but in 2014, he was on the Creighton University soccer team.

Hmong Youth, American Football, and Tournaments | 219

32 “Hmong Football Star at Ease in Two Cultures,” Wausau Daily, April 25, 2010, football-star-ease-two-cultures (accessed March 10, 2014).

33 “Placekicker Charlie Vue Is a Favorite of Grant’s Alberghini,” Sacramento Bee, August 24, 2011, (accessed March 22, 2014).

34 Wameng Moua, “Hmong Football Players—in St. Paul High Schools Today and in the NFL Tomorrow?,” Twin Cities Daily Planet, October 24, 21012, and-nfl-tomorrow (accessed March 22, 2014).

35 Tim Leighton, “Prep Football: Highland Assistant Coach Elliott Vang Helps Introduce Hmong to America’s Game,” Pioneer Press, August 26, 2013, http://www. helping-introduce (accessed March 23, 2014).

36 Boua Xiong, “St. Paul Man Kicking His Way to an NFL Dream,” KARE 11 News, March 12, 2014. toward-an-nfl-dream/6308041/ (accessed March 23, 2014).

37 This author has attended many events across the U.S. during the last 30 years and competed in volleyball and soccer tournaments as a teenager.

38 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (rev. ed.), (New York: Verso, 1991).

39 “Puavpheej” means proof or evidence that something is true or will take place.

40 Tim Post, “150 Soccer Teams from around the World Compete at Hmong Freedom Celebration,” MPR News Blog, July 4, 2014, story/2014/07/04/hmong-freedom-celebration (accessed September 23, 2014).

41 Eriberto P. Lozado, Jr., “Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism in Shanghai Sports,” City & Society 18(2): 207–233.

42 I use “soccer” to be consistent with how Americans refer to this sport.

43 General descriptions in this section draw on participant observations and in- formal interviews with women soccer players in Green Bay, Oshkosh, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2006–2014.

44 Dan Olson, “For Hmong American Women, Flag Football Breaks Barriers.” Min- nesota Public Radio News, June 28, 2013, news/for-hmong-american-women-flag-football-breaks-barriers (accessed March 22, 2014).

45 Hmong Sports Forum. (accessed October 12, 2014). Those who post must be members of the forum. Gender information is avail- able on the site.

46 Marilyn Vang, “Hmong Girls Play Football,” Hmong Today, August 08, 2007, (ac- cessed October 12, 2014).

47 Hmong Sports Forum for this and following three quotations.
48 In the U.S., players use cut-off golf clubs instead of bamboo sticks.