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home : community : community Friday, June 24, 2016

12/1/2006 Email this articlePrint this article 
Dr. Gary Yia Lee

By Dai Thao

In 1961 as war raged on in the backdrop of Laos, 13 year old Dr. Gary Yia Lee and his family trekked from Xieng Khouang to Vientiane, to attend the only high school in Laos. Their journey lasted four months on foot stopping from village to village evading communist troops. Throughout his years of learning, Dr. Lee has had to endure financial hardship, self-doubt, and homesickness, but he never gave up. His determination and love for learning earned him a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology/Community Development, from the University of Sydney, Australia, in 1981. Dr. Lee also wrote numerous publications on the Hmong and other ethnic refugee experiences. His dedication, knowledge, and modest demeanor have earned him a reputation as one of the premier Hmong scholars and researchers in the world.

Early on a Sunday morning, I am scheduled to meet with Dr. Lee at his sister's house. I couldn't wait to get out of the cold and walked into the all season porch. I danced around a dozens pair of shoes stacked neatly on the floor into her house. They were having boiled chicken, broth, sweet rice, hot pepper, and pumpkin soup for breakfast. They invited me to join them.

Right away I could sense Dr. Lee had an aura at the table, but he didn't talk about himself. The other people did the talking. A couple of days before Dr. Lee had a lecture at Concordia University on Hmong history. For the first time I realized how humble Dr. Lee was and how well he articulated his thoughts before they became words. Though Dr. Lee is respected by Hmong and non-Hmong, Dr. Lee doesn't put himself on a pedestal. During one of his classes at Concordia, covering Hmong power structures and religion, he grabbed a handout, but before he passed it out, he apologized to the class. He explained he wasn't boasting or promoting his writing on the subject. He was only using his work as an example. Since the effect of religion on Hmong culture is a complex subject and no one had written about it "yet", he did.

After breakfast Dr. Lee led me to a small guest room. There Dr. Lee shared apart of his life. Young Dr. Lee wanted to be the best in school. He wanted to use his education to better the Hmong and the country of Laos. He continued to study and read hundreds of books to occupy his lonesome days in Vientiane. At one point Dr. Lee tried to memorize the whole dictionary to entertain himself. In his high school years, Dr. Lee was fascinated by classic French novels and culture. At that time the French military occupied the tiny landlocked country of Laos. "All the teachers were French. Everything they taught was in the French language and culture," said Dr. Lee in his Australian drawl. "My French teachers were very nationalistic. And they would tell us how great, how big, how nice France was. Like all colonial powers, they would see the people in the colonies as backward and inferior. I think we all acquired this feeling of being inferior compared to the western people. You get this feeling that they were trying to put it in our mind that they were superior. They'll teach French culture and history, but never about your own history or culture. They never used any text books about you or your country. So what we studied was what the French were studying and teaching in France. But you know it was like a foreign environment (for us), because we were not French kids. It conveyed to you this feeling of schizophrenia, of studying something foreign in your own country."

Dr. Lee may have been the underdog, a farm boy, but he has had a series of good fortunes. He remembered his French teachers were supportive and kind to him. The teachers knew he was a good student even though he didn't have much as a Hmong from the highland living abroad. One of his teachers gave him second-hand clothes. Others invited him to their homes for meals and provided extra coaching on the subjects he wasn't good at. They encouraged Dr. Lee to continue to learn about French people, tradition, culture, and to further his study in France. "As a Hmong from the mountains, I was taken by French culture. It was a completely different world," said Dr. Lee. "I was not used to the idea of a big city, high-rises and castles. The books and pictures conveyed something fabulous, something unreal and something really big and civilized out there."

As war ravaged the country, Dr. Lee dreamt of going to study in France. Towards the end of high school he wasn't so sure anymore. A cousin Tou Vu Lee, now living in Syracuse, New York, was at that time the first Hmong to study in Australia. He wrote and encouraged Dr. Lee to study in Australia instead of France. Tou Vu Lee eventually convinced Dr. Lee to take the Colombo Plan Scholarship, an Australia Government sponsored program for qualified students to study in Australia. After Dr. Lee took the exam and passed, he began to have second thoughts about Australia. He didn't want to go aboard anymore; doing so would mean leaving his family and everyone he knew behind in times of war. He decided to escape back to his village to do some hard thinking. When Dr. Lee came back to his village, it took a while for him to pronounce his Hmong properly again. His friends and family poked fun at how much he'd changed. The Hmong words he managed to speak didn't sound Hmong, but a mixture of Hmong and some foreign tone.

A month after he went AWOL, the embassy broadcasted on the radio throughout the country looking for Dr. Lee to return to Vientiane. They wanted him back to prepare for Australia. Dr. Lee didn't want to go back to Vientiane and Australia, but he knew he had to go because his goals had not been reached. When Dr. Lee arrived in Australia he was surprised that Australia was not what he thought it would be. There weren't any tall buildings and castles like in the books. "You were taught this ideal of what western civilization was like, but they weren't entirely true."


In 1972, Dr. Lee received a Bachelor degree in Social Work from University of New South Wales, Australia, because he wanted to help his fellow countrymen. Dr. Lee soon realized that social work in western culture was different than that of Laos. He didn't want to sit in a room and counsel clients. What he needed was something that was hands on. Dr. Lee wanted something with a greater impact for his country. Instead of returning to Laos, Dr. Lee continued his education and in 1975, received his Master in Community Development. During this time his only form of communication with his family was through mail. They were his eyes and ears to the raging war in his home country. Dr. Lee was in Australia and didn't know the United States pulled out of Vietnam, as a result Laos fell fast to the Viet-Cong and Pathet Laos.

"I was so excited to go back home to Laos. They (Royal Lao Government) had a job waiting for me. Then I got a letter from my family that the communists took over and they all fled into Thailand. They told me it was too dangerous for me to come back."

Dr. Lee was deeply disappointed, after all the years he had been away and studying for his people. Now, he couldn't go back home. He told his family it was okay for him to go back and develop the country even under communist rule, but his family wouldn't let him. Eventually Dr. Lee understood the risk and stayed in Australia.

Dr. Lee realized what was written about Hmong by non-Hmong scholars had flaws. One particular case was by his professor, Dr. William Geddes. Dr. Geddes wrote the book Migrants of the Mountains. In the book Hmong were labeled as Meo, which didn't sit very well with Dr. Lee. In Laos, to call a Hmong person a "Meo" is like calling a Black person a "nigger." Dr. Geddes also theorized that the reason Hmong have multiple wives was because of opium. Dr. Lee said, "I disagreed with him. My father has two wives and our family wasn't opium farmers. There were many things I couldn't agree with. So we debate for some time and finally he (Dr. Geddes) said fine you know the culture, the people, the language, you go do the research. So I did."

Dr. Lee continued to develop his friendship with Dr. Geddes. Dr. Geddes helped mentor Dr. Lee in the pursuit of his PhD in Anthropology. In 1976, under the UN Crop Replacement Projects among highland opium growers in Northern Thailand, Dr. Lee visited Thailand for the first time. It was this experience that inspired Dr. Lee to write his romance novel "Dust of Life; A Ban Vinai Love Story."

Dr. Lee is quite a poet and fiction writer. You can read more of Dr. Lee's work at www.garyyialee.com. He wrote his first short story at the age of 16 and won a couple of school prizes. "I was so excited I told my scholarship supervisor I didn't want to go to the university. I wanted to be a writer. She wisely took me aside and had a very long conversation with me. After that I sort of cooled down my ambition on fiction writing and just concentrated on my studies."

At a reading in Minneapolis hosted by David Zander, Dr. Lee read his poems along with Bryan Thao Worra, Ka Vang, and Pacyinz Lyfoung. "There's too much structure in academia writing," said Dr. Lee. "Fiction and poem allow me to express my creative side."

Dr. Lee is serving as the first Scholar-in-Residence at Concordia University. He will conduct research and teach two courses under the Minor in Hmong Studies. Ultimately Dr. Lee said that he hopes his academic writing will help the Hmong know themselves better and decide for themselves what course of action to take to better their future.

Some of Dr. Lee's students talk about his courses. Vilai Xiong, a sophomore, "The way he teaches, he has his own unique way of recycling the teaching that helps you remember. Where other Hmong scholars or leaders might talk about themselves, he (Dr. Lee) talks less about himself, but cites other sources. He's one of the brightest people I've been with, the way he teaches and his vast knowledge."

David Her another sophomore said that taking the course has given him a sense of self identity. The knowledge of where the Hmong have come from brought him a sense of pride.

Alexander Bednar, a freshman from northern Minnesota, "It's been a great class so far. Dr. Lee has a great knowledge of Hmong culture and history. He uses many different sources, so we get the many different views. He speaks in a way everyone can understand."

Dr. Lee is a person who he won't make things up to hold his status as a scholar. He'll tell you what he knows and admit what he doesn't. Dr. Lee will tell you like it is, but advise you to do your own research and drawn your own conclusion. As Dr. Lee reflected on the Hmong, he said that the Hmong have come a long way at a very fast pace in all areas. "The Hmong are very smart people. They adapt quickly to their environment. This allows them to survive and succeed. But the Hmong also have some drawbacks, particularly the clan system. The clan system is useful in a village, but the clan system segregates, promotes grudges, and can result in corruption."

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