Kou Yang, Hmong Pioneer and Scholar 1954-20219 min read

Kou Yang, Ed. D., MSW. Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Stanislaus passed away on February 6, 2021.

Yang taught Ethnic Studies courses at California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock from 1998 to 2013. He created one of the first Hmong studies class, The Hmong Cultural Experience in the United States in 2001. The class continues to be offered on campus as The Hmong American Experience. He served as an advisor to the Hmong Students Association and mentored a generation of students to go on to become teachers, social workers and leaders in the community. With his support several students would go on to graduate programs to complete Masters and Doctorate degrees. He was an author who has written academic articles and books and has published books in China and Laos. A Fulbright Scholar and Sasakawa Fellow, Kou Yang was also a poet and folk story teller and wrote books for children. He was an avid traveler to more than two dozen countries. He loved to research and learn about new cultures and experiences. He served on the Board of Hmong National Development and on the Board of the Southeast Asian American Professionals Association. At the 7th International Conference on Hmong Studies in 2018, Yang was presented with the Eagle’s Award which is given to a scholar that has made significant contributions to the field of Hmong studies. He is survived by his wife and four children.

From Dishwasher to University Professor

Yang came to this country as a refugee of war in 1976 and spoke only a few words of English. He spoke some French so he was able to find some work as a dishwasher at a French restaurant in New Orleans. He shared with many of his students how he learned English was by learning one word every day. He would then take English as a Second Language classes and attend some school at this time. Yang received his Associates in 1982 from Long Beach City College. He relocated to Fresno and completed his Bachelors in 1987 and Master of Social Work in 1991 from California State University, Fresno. In 1995, he earned his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from the Joint Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at California State University, Fresno, and the University of California, Davis.

Additionally, he completed special education programs, such as a six-month study in China, an intensive Japanese studies program as a Sasakawa Fellow, and short-term educational programs on Lao culture and Buddhism, and Chinese Ethnic Studies. In 2004, he led California State University, Stanislaus Fulbright-Hay Group to do a month-long educational tour of Yunnan and Guizhou, China; and in 2009, he led a post-conference group of international scholars to tour the Hmong and Miao in Guizhou, China.

Prior to his university teaching, he was a social worker. He worked for the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services from 1980 to 1984, and the Fresno County Department of Social services from 1984 to 1996, he also worked briefly for Tulare County-Fresno County Mental Health from 1997 to 1998. His educational journey would take nearly 20 years to complete as he worked full time.

Kou Yang has an extensive publication record on Hmong Diaspora, Hmong history and culture, the Hmong American experience, Lao culture, and the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees. His essays have appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Asian American Studies; Ethnic Studies Review Journal; Asian Pacific Migration Journal; Hmong Studies Journal; Miao Research Journal, Journal of Guizhou University for Nationalities; and Journal of Hubei Institute for Nationalities. In addition, he has contributed chapters to many books, including Passages (1990); Hmong Forum (1996); Emerging Voices: The Experiences of Underrepresented Asian Americans (2008); The Impact of Globalization and Trans-nationalism on the Hmong (2009); Hmong/Miao Research (2009); Hmong and American: From Refugees to Citizens (2012), and Diversity within Diaspora: Hmong Americans in the Twenty-First Century (2013). He was co-editor of Diversity In Diaspora: Hmong Americans in the Twenty-First Century (2013), and author of “Laos and Its Expatriates in the United States,” and 根连万里情依依 (2015), loosely translated as Root Connection from Ten Thousand Miles (published in China and in Chinese), and The Making of Hmong America (2017). Kou Yang has also contributed to more than 20 newspaper articles and editorial opinion pieces, such as Prof. Kou Yang: The deadly, horrible mess we made still plagues Indochina (2015), 40yrs After the Vietnam War: celebrating the contributions of Indochinese refugees to the USA (2015) [2], and President Obama’s Historic Visit to Laos comes at the Perfect Time (2016). His early works include collections of his poems, Hmong Knowledge and Wisdom, and Hmong Folk Stories.

(Excerpt from Kou Yang)

Early Life

Kou Yang was born into a large Hmong family of 18 people in a remote village in Northern Laos. Only one of his four uncles had one year tutoring in basic Lao literacy. His early oral education focused on Hmong religion and wisdom, folk stories, the surrounding environment and skills needed to survive in the highlands.

At the age of eight years old, he was sent to a school in a lowland Lao village about half-a-day’s walk with other Hmong children. Ranging in age from six to sixteen, all Lao and Hmong students were placed in a single-room schoolhouse and taught by a single teacher. His education progressed remarkably, after only two years he was sent to a school in town, partly due to the Secret War and partly due to his and his family’s desire for him to further pursue his education. In Sayaboury Town, he started third grade at the Sayaboury Elementary School (Group Scholaire de Sayaboury), the biggest elementary school of the town. After completion of his sixth-grade education, he was admitted to College de Sayaboury, the only junior high school of the province of Sayaboury in Northwestern Laos. He finished his junior high school in the summer of 1974, and went to Lycee de Luang Phrabang and later to Ecole Normal de Luang Phrabang, preparing to be a high school teacher or to advance his education in France. His education, career goals and dream were disrupted at the end of the Secret War in 1975. Like many thousands of people in Laos, he and his family became refugees abroad. After a one year stay in a refugee camp in Thailand, he resettled in New Orleans, Louisiana. A year later, he moved to Long Beach, California. In 1984, he accepted a job offer in Fresno, California, and he has since called Central California, his home.

The Secret War hit him and his family hard. In early 1972, his youngest uncle, who was a military officer, was killed in action and in December that year, his father and another uncle were assassinated. The family was subjected to suffering, hardship and poverty. Due to a lack of financial support, the young Kou Yang stayed in a Buddhist temple to continue his education. Later, he moved into a Christian Youth Hostel to get free room and board, so he could continue his education. As an adult, he committed his life’s work to non-violence, humanitarian work, education and peace building. His peace building work has taken him to Geneva in 2010, Washington DC in 2012, and Vietnam in 2014.[1] His tireless search for his roots and identity has partially contributed to the historic establishment of the (overseas Hmong) Roots-Searching Monument in Xingwen, Sichuan, China, which was officially opened in April 2014.

He started his life in the United States in 1976 with only a few words of English. He spoke some French and got a dishwashing job at an upscale French restaurant in New Orleans. There, he committed himself to learn one English word a day. Later, he took English as a Second Language, and attended school as his time and resources allowed.

Read his work and publications (partial list):

Kou Yang. “Commentary: Challenges and Complexity in the Re-Construction of Hmong
History.” Hmong Studies Journal, Vol 10, 2009.

Kou Yang. “A Visit to the Hmong of Asia: Globalization and Ethnicity at the Dawn of the
21st Century.” Hmong Studies Journal, Vol 9, 2008 (Text).

Kou Yang. “A Visit to the Hmong of Asia: Globalization and Ethnicity at the Dawn of the
21st Century.” Hmong Studies Journal, Vol 9, 2008 (Photo Essay).

Kou Yang. “An Assessment of the Hmong American New Year and Its Implications for
Hmong-American Culture.” Hmong Studies Journal Vol 8, 2007.

Kou Yang. “Research Notes from the Field: Tracing the Path of the Ancestors – A Visit to
the Hmong in China.” Hmong Studies Journal, Vol 6, 2005.

Kou Yang.“Hmong Americans: A Review of Felt Needs, Problems, and Community
Development.” Hmong Studies Journal, Vol 4, 2003.

Kou Yang. “Hmong Mens’ Adaptation to Life in the United States.” Hmong Studies Journal,
Vol 1, No. 2, 1997.

Kou Yang. “The passing of a Hmong Pioneer: Nhiavu Lobliayao (Nyiaj Vws Lauj Npliaj
Yob), 1915-1999.” Hmong Studies Journal, Vol 3, 2000.


Kou Yang, Sayaboury: Land of a Million Elephants (2019)

Kou Yang: Nuj Yob: The Hmong Jungle Book (2019)

Kou Yang, The Making of Hmong America: Forty Years after the Secret War (2019)

Kou Yang, The Hmong & Their Odyssey (2015) out of print

Kou Yang (co-editor), Diversity in Diaspora: Hmong Americans in the Twentieth-First Century (2013)

Kou Yang, Laos and Its Expatriates in the United States: A Memoir of an American Professor (2013)

Kou Yang, “Forging New Paths, Confronting New Challenges, ” in Her and Buley-Meissner, Hmong and American: From Refugees to Citizens (2012)


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Seng Alex Vang

Seng Alex Vang

Seng Alex Vang is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced. He is also a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Geography & Ethnic studies at California State University, Stanislaus where he teaches courses in Asian American studies.

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