WARREN, Mich. – Suni Lee’s gold medal makes her the best gymnast of the Tokyo Games, but for thousands of Metro Detroiters, it’s something even more special.
Lee is the first Hmong American to be on a United States Olympic Team and the first to bring home a medal.
Michigan is home to just under 6,000 Hmong Americans. Lee’s victory created a lot of buzz in their communities and brought hope of spreading more interest in their culture.
She is the first American on an Olympic team with Hmong heritage. The East Asian ethnic minority was forced to flee China and Laos after being recruited by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Refugees were forced to leave, fearing for their lives.
Many Hmong refugees came to the American midwest and Metro Detroit.
Macomb County Commissioner Mai Xiong is Michigan’s first elected Hmong American official. She also owns a clothing store in Warren, where many Hmong Americans live.
“To see Suni win a gold medal, to be the first Hmong American in the Olympics and to win a gold medal, that’s a really big deal for our community,” Xiong said. “I have young girls and I know now they can have someone to look up to, someone who looks like them.”
That’s something Xiong said she didn’t have when she was a young girl.
“When you watch TV or you see someone on screen and they don’t look like you and you almost think that you don’t belong or maybe there’s something wrong with you,” she said.
Inside Xiong’s store are handmade patterns that are modeled after the same ones used by her family to tell stories -- each repeated symbol represents something specific. And now, in Suni Lee, there’s a new patern that they can share with all Americans.
“She would be a star because that’s what she is,” Xiong said. “She’s our star.”