In its heyday, the small town of Marysville, Calif., was the "Gateway to the Gold Fields," a popular stop for miners hoping to strike it rich during the famed California Gold Rush.
But by 1987, the year Yang Sao Xiong's family arrived in northern California, the river city of about 12,000 people didn't offer prospects nearly as lucrative — particularly for a family of non-English speaking, Hmong refugees who had been dropped into an unfamiliar land.
"I felt my family's struggle," Xiong says. "That certainly is a driver of my research."
That research perspective — built around a yearning to better understand inequality and stratification within U.S. society — made Xiong an ideal candidate for a historic position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After spending this year on the prestigious Anna Julia Cooper Post-Doctoral Fellowship, he will begin a joint appointment in the Asian American Studies Program and the School of Social Work in what is believed to be the first tenure-track position specifically dedicated to the emergent field of Hmong American studies in the United States.
It is a distinction Xiong holds with pride, in part because of his humble beginnings.
His parents were farmers before his father, like so many other Hmong men in Laos in the early 1960s, was recruited by the CIA to fight in the "Secret War" as part of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. After the war ended, they spent 12 years in refugee camps in Thailand, where Xiong and his older brother were born, before coming to the United States. Xiong's parents attended adult school to learn English and acclimate to life in a new country on the other side of the world, but the adjustment wasn't easy. His father struggled to find a stable job while his mother raised their 12 children.
When Xiong, the second-oldest, left Marysville — first for the University of California, Davis, where he graduated with honors in sociology and Asian American studies, before heading to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned his master's degree and Ph.D. in sociology — he found himself returning to his upbringing. Aware that his academic experiences may have been the exception rather than the norm for most immigrant and racial minority children, Xiong wanted to investigate how and why certain immigrant groups fared better than others.
As a graduate student at UCLA, Xiong studied how language minority students were tested and tracked, the persistence of poverty in Hmong American communities, and the protest movements and political incorporation of Hmong Americans.
That research helped him stand out amid a talented pool of candidates for the newly-created position in the College of Letters & Science.
Faculty, staff, students and community members first began advocating for the inclusion of Hmong-related topics in university curriculum in the late 1980s, as the Hmong population in the state continued to grow.
As of the 2010 U.S. census, Wisconsin (49,240) had the third-largest Hmong population in the country behind California (91,224) and Minnesota (66,181), and three Wisconsin cities ranked among the top 10 metropolitan areas for Hmong residents: Milwaukee (fourth), Wausau (eighth), and Madison (10th).
It’s also a young population: Per three-year estimates by the Census Bureau in 2011, more than 42 percent of Wisconsin’s Hmong residents were less than 18 years old.
Professor of Anthropology Katherine Bowie’s Peoples and Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia was the first course on campus to incorporate discussion of the Asian ethnic group in 1988. UW-Madison has offered summer Hmong language courses since 1994, and began offering them during the academic year in 2006. In 2010, L&S leveraged a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to establish the UW-UM Hmong Studies Consortium with the University of Minnesota and hire Ian Baird, an assistant professor of geography and an expert on the Hmong and other upland peoples of Southeast Asia.
But there was also sustained interest — from campus and the community — in adding a Hmong American perspective. UW-Madison began hiring a yearly visiting assistant professor to teach Hmong American studies courses in 2008, before creating Xiong’s position with help from a planning committee that included faculty, staff, students and community members.
"His hire demonstrates that social progress can happen when a group of people works steadily and inclusively toward a common goal," says Lynet Uttal, a professor in the School of Human Ecology and the director of the Asian American Studies Program from 2008 to June 2013.
Timothy Yu, who succeeded Uttal in leading the Asian American Studies Program, notes that, while other scholars have already worked in the field, this is "the first time a research university has sat down and said, 'OK, we really want to commit a tenure-track position to this field. We want to make a long-term investment in this idea of Hmong American studies.'"
Xiong has already begun forging connections in the community and developing courses on social movement theories — how communities organize, build consensus and take action — and interracial dynamics in the United States. He’s using his fellowship to work on a research project on social support systems and their effects on health in Hmong communities, with an eye toward conducting a broad, multi-state study on Hmong health in the coming years.
"I want [my research] to focus on Hmong as a group," he says. "Not just as an isolated group, though: as a group within the large Asian American community, which is in turn embedded in the American society."