Highlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Faculty and Staff

This past May, UGA’s College of Pharmacy recognized National Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Dr. May Xiong, Associate Professor in Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences, shared the poignant story of her Hmong heritage in the College’s marketing materials and social media. Here is her story, along with the perspectives of fellow colleagues.

Dr. May Xiong is part of an Asian ethnicity that has no homeland and has experienced persecution and failed attempts to assimilate into the culture of Asian countries where they have resided for centuries. Throughout these tribulations, the Hmong people have preserved their culture by promoting Hmong cuisine, wearing traditional clothing, and speaking their language from generation to generation. Dr. Xiong is immensely proud of her Hmong culture, and she is passionate about connecting with other Hmongs in Georgia so that she can keep her heritage alive.

According to Dr. Xiong, the history of the Hmong people is one of trials and conflict. Originating from the southern portion of China, Hmongs had separate rituals, languages, and customs from traditional Chinese culture; this subjected them to oppression and genocide by the Qing dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries. To escape persecution and protect their unique heritage, Hmongs migrated south into the northern mountains of Laos, where approximately 600,000 (2015) still live today. It’s important to note that Hmongs do not identify as Laotian, even though they reside as an ethnic minority in this area. For years, state-sponsored persecution and serious human rights violations against the Hmong by the government of Laos have been reported but have unfortunately received little international media scrutiny.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many Hmongs secretly were recruited by U.S. forces to fight against communism during the Vietnam War. After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, a communist regime took over in Laos and ordered the prosecution and re-education of all those who had fought against its cause. Hmongs fled Laos in fear and were evacuated by American civilian pilots over the Laotian border into refugee camps in Thailand. Many Hmong were welcomed to the U.S. and France as refugees due to their support of the American efforts during the war.

“My grandfather, Lt. Col. Youa Kao Vang, bravely fought Vietnamese and Laotian communists under Gen. Vang Pao. When he passed away in 2017, at the age of 98, in Milwaukee, WI, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a commemorative piece on him. I remember him pulling up his pant legs and showing us all the shrapnels still visible in his legs. He would jokingly recall that whenever he had to pass through airport security, he would invariably set off every metal detector thus announcing his arrival. But under this smile, he was in a lot of pain throughout his life.”

According to the recent census, which likely is an underestimation, approximately 300,000 Hmong people live in the U.S., with the vast majority residing in tight-knit communities in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. There are about 5-6,000 who live in Georgia, including a small group in Monroe and Winder, both less than 30 miles from the UGA Arches. While aggregate data on Asian-American students suggests they are highly successful in the U.S., disaggregate data reveals drastic variations in academic and economic achievement between ethnicities.

Dr. Xiong’s story began in a Thailand refugee camp, where she was born. She was only a month old when her parents immigrated to Strasbourg, France as refugees seeking a better life for their family. Read May’s entire story here.

Several PharmDawg faculty and staff who identify as Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans (APIDA) commented on their heritage. 

Dr. Trisha Branan, CAP Clinical Associate Professor; Heritage: Vietnamese 

“Being half-Vietnamese and half-White, I have been influenced by two different cultures, experiences, and beliefs that have shaped who I am.”

Dr. Michael Fulford, Director of Assessment and Interim Lead for Faculty Affairs; Heritage: South Korean

“Being Korean has provided me many amazing opportunities, such as experiences with different foods, understanding a different language, being immersed in a different culture with unique and exciting activities as compared to traditional American customs. It also has put in me in situations in which I faced prejudice and discriminatory behavior, such as being told I could not date someone because their family didn’t want their daughter to associate with someone who was non-White. Being called nicknames and slurs growing up, whether from peers, coaches, or teachers, regardless of if I was okay with it, is an unpleasant memory. Overall, however, I have a strong sense of pride in my Korean heritage, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I know my experiences, good and bad, have made me the person I am today.”

Dr. Grace Gowda, Associate Professor & Director for the International Biomedical Regulatory Sciences Program Director, Gwinnett; Heritage: India (Desi); Tamil 

“India is diverse in culture, traditions, languages, and food, which in many aspects is similar to the melting pot that I experience as an American. I am very proud of my Tamil heritage. I am from Chennai (city) in the state of Tamil Nadu in south India that is known for beautiful temples, beaches and hospitality. My mother tongue is Tamil, an ancient language that also is spoken widely in other countries, including Srilanka, Singapore, and Malaysia.  The mother of Vice President Kamala Harris is a Tamilian from the city of Chennai!”

Dr. William Huang, CAP Clinical Instructor; Heritage: Taiwanese 

“My Chinese heritage has been the greatest gift my parents instilled in my siblings and me.  It lovingly ties me to another world in which valuing elders and a close-knit family is part of every-day life. Being bilingual has opened up opportunities for me to be more accepting of people from other cultures.”

Dr. Jayani Jayawardhana, CAP Associate Professor; Heritage: South Asian

“I’m from Sri Lanka, an island nation in South Asia located in the Indian Ocean. I was born and brought up there and came to the U.S. to attend college.”

Dr. Priya Narayanan, CAP Associate Professor, Augusta; Heritage: South Asian

“I was born and raised in Kerala, a southern state of India. A big part of my Asian heritage is rooted in the cultural and ethnic diversity I was surrounded with as I was growing up. As an Indian, I was raised among multiple religious and ethnic traditions. This led to a great sense of unity, pride, and an exciting culture that we love to share with others through art, music, colorful festivals, and much more.”

Dr. Somanath Shenoy, CAP Professor; Director of Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics (CET); Interim Assistant Department Head for Research; Augusta; Heritage: South Asian

“I was born and raised in southern India, where I received all of my education. India has the oldest known culture in Hinduism dating back to five millennia and some of the oldest known civilizations. Indian states are created on a linguistic basis. Each Indian state has its own language, beliefs, cuisine, clothing, and other cultural identities. My culture and heritage mean a lot to my family and I. We do plenty of activities to imbibe our culture in our children, such as lessons on Indian dance forms and classical music, Indian mythology, cultural programs, and cuisine, etc., and we encourage them to participate in community events and cultural programs.”

Dr. Y. George Zheng, CAP Professor; Director of Clinical and Experimental Therapeutics (CET); Interim Assistant Department Head for Research; Augusta; Heritage: Shandong Province, China

“Being born and raised in China had a big impact on my childhood and youth experiences. It has allowed me the leverage to be acquainted with Chinese language, culture, and food styles.”

Other PharmDawg who identify as Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans (APIDA) include: Dr. Fang Liu, CAP Research Professional II, Augusta, Chinese; and Dr. Duc Do, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Vietnamese.