We often hear about the success of Asian Americans who are emblematic of the “model minority” stereotype. But we rarely hear the voices of those who fall through the cracks. The term AAPI, or Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, was popularized by the Obama Administration from among several terms which already existed. It encompasses not only East Asian and Indian American immigrants who on average possess more degrees and levels of education when they immigrated to the US, but also the Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders who are not as well off. And when the public only has one “model minority” conception of AAPIs, comparably marginal peoples are too often forgotten.
Last year, I blogged about the story of Sao Lue Vang. Vang is a 64-year-old Hmong American man who was out hunting in Pepin County, Wisconsin when he was assaulted and brutally beaten by Kevin Elberg. Elberg, who appeared to have been drinking at the time of the assault, approached Vang to tell him the hunter was trespassing on private property. Vang says that after a verbal exchange occurred, he turned to leave. That’s when Elberg tackled the older man, wrestled him to the ground, and kicked him repeatedly resulting in several internal injuries including a lacerated liver. Elberg then placed his hand over Vang’s mouth, suffocating him and causing him to pass out.
Elberg was arrested last December and charged with battery and false imprisonment. The incident spurred community outrage and protests among Hmong Americans in the Minnesota and Wisconsin area, highlighting ongoing xenophobic tensions between local non-Asian American residents and their Hmong American neighbours. Parallels between Vang’s story and that of Hmong American hunter Chai Vang (no relation to Sao Lue Vang) — convicted in 2004 of shooting and killing six in an incident that Vang testified was self-defense — underscored the prevailing Catch-22: it doesn’t matter whether Hmong Americans — or, indeed, any Asian Americans — try to remain pliant or choose to fight back, the result will be the same. Hmong Americans will be blamed for not knowing how things work in America. The legal system will not protect us. We will be the model minority until we are not.
After Elberg’s arrest last December, Elberg faced court deliberations on the prosecution’s charges, wherein he contested the charges. Elberg said he assaulted Sao Lue Vang in self-defense. Elberg denied that race had anything to do with the attack, and he asserted that he beat Vang after the Hmong American hunter pointed his rifle at him.
As reported earlier this month, the incident began when Vang was out with friends squirrel hunting on public land in Pepin County; he became separated from his fellow hunters when he encountered Elberg, who was also out bow-hunting on his parents’ property. The events that follow this initial meeting are disputed, but what we do know is that Vang left the incident with a lacerated liver and a hand cut so badly it required several stitches.