Students celebrate, share perspectives for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month

Read Q&A profiles of four Doctor of Medicine program students focused on what Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month means to them and what projects are exciting them most.

Nicole Liang

Nicole, top left, celebrates Lunar New Year with friends through the Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association.

My name is Nicole Liang, and I am a first-year medical student. I am a first generation Chinese American, and I am one of Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association’s (APAMSA) Co-Presidents. In my spare time, I enjoy cooking and exploring restaurants in Madison.

What does your heritage mean to you?
Growing up, I was hyperaware of the fact that I didn’t eat the same foods as my peers at home, I didn’t speak the same language, and we celebrated different holidays. It wasn’t until I attended college that I met people who looked like me who actually embraced their culture instead of shying away from it. That was when I started to develop a deeper appreciation of my heritage and the rich history behind it. My Chinese heritage has helped me connect with people through shared experiences, love for food, and strong sense of community.

What do you hope we learn from history as we build our future in regard to this month’s celebration of Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi cultures?
APIDA communities are not a monolith and there is so much to celebrate and appreciate from each culture. Moving forward, I hope we can uplift the voices and people that differ from mainstream stories.

What is a project that you’re working on that you’re excited about?
APAMSA has hosted a few events so far this year, including a Lunar New Year Potluck and study sessions with Asian snacks like boba and ramen. We have an APIDA physician panel in May and were really excited to have physicians from different specialties and backgrounds come speak to the students and discuss their unique journeys in medicine. We are constantly thinking about what events we can plan and how we can best serve our APIDA community.

Kha Lor

Kha Lor, top left shares, “This is a photo of my mother, nephew, half of my sisters, and myself. We took this picture over 5 years ago at our local Hmong New Year celebration. You might notice that not everyone is wearing the same cultural outfit. This diversity in traditional clothing attire is not only a testament to the migratory patterns of our ancestors but also a reflection of current fashion trends and feasibility,” Lor says. “My mother, one of my sisters, and I are wearing the traditional attire unique to not only our specific dialect of Hmong but also to the region in which my parents were born.”

My name is Kha Lor. I am a daughter and a sister, born into a large Hmong family of 12 and raised in the heart of the Twin Cities. Despite living there nearly all my life, I have profound wanderlust and desire to be a keen observer of mother nature’s beauty as well as the diversity and uniqueness found within and amongst the human population. Currently, my journey has taken me to Madison to pursue my MD/MPH so that I can become a competent provider to my community and communities like my own.

What does your heritage mean to you?
To me, “heritage” is a difficult term to quantify — it encompasses elements that are both tangible and intangible, which transmits a shared history, lives with us in the present, and helps shape the kind of future we would like to build for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our future generations. Heritage is more than something I was born into and with; it stretches to encompass learned and acquired values, beliefs, behaviors, and desires that I embody. It’s something that I am committed to sharing with the future generations and to the world, so that my unique heritage can continue to live on — just like other heritages — and keep the world colorful and heterogenous.

What do you hope we learn from history as we build our future in regard to this month’s celebration of Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi cultures?
One of my favorite quotes is from George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month is not only a celebration of the various ethnic groups underneath that umbrella term but also to commemorate the struggles and accomplishments of this population. As wonderful and appreciative as it is to highlight the tremendous success of APIDA individuals, we must not forget the struggles and strides made to build a safer, more inclusive world without fear of being oneself. Let’s be better neighbors to our fellow human beings and not allow our emotions to drive hate toward innocent individuals due to their identity. Despite the dire conditions and uncertain future we might find ourselves in, we must not forget to show empathy, compassion, and love.

What is a project that you’re working on that you’re excited about?
I wish I could share everything I’m working on that excites me, however, I will spare everyone from my constant, never-ending spiel! Currently, I am spending most of my spare time working on analyzing literature and data of cancer statistics within the Hmong and American Indian and Alaska Native populations. These are two separate projects with highly intriguing and observable characterizations of documented malignancy within two frequently overlooked and underexamined populations in the United States. My colleagues and I are currently working on a manuscript for the Hmong cancer data, while another medical student and I are working collaboratively with Pink Shawl in preparation for an upcoming fall conference hosted by the Oneida Nation.

Anything else you would like to add?
Parting words: Stay curious and never stop learning!

Sam Thao

Sam Thao, center back, poses with Hmong members of the Asian Pacific American Medical School Association (APAMSA). They gathered at the annual Madison Hmong New Year celebration to perform blood pressure tests.

Hello! My name is Sam Thao. I am a second-year medical student and first-generation Hmong American.

What does your heritage mean to you?
Growing up in Madison and Milwaukee, I had a hard time walking the fine line between Hmong and American. At school, I went by “Sam,” whereas at home, my parents and elders called me “Ntsum Xaab.” It was quite difficult to appreciate and navigate between the two worlds: “Who am I? What am I?” However, this started to change when I joined the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).

In the Army, we address one another with our last names. With the uniform name tape displayed across the right side of my chest, I introduced myself as “Lieutenant Thao.” After hearing it a couple hundred times, especially in a non-Hmong community, I really began to take ownership and identify with my last name, my family name, my culture. I felt the responsibility of representing my entire Thao family and wanted to make all of them proud. Now, I strive for the day when I become “Doctor Thao.” Not just for me, but for the Thao’s who came before me, for the Thao’s who are with me now, and for the Thao’s who come after me.

What do you hope we learn from history as we build our future in regard to this month’s celebration of Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi cultures?
Before my grandfather passed away in 2015, he would always say to us grandchildren, “nej yog kuv cov noob” or “you are my seeds.” We would always laugh and joke about it because it sounded so funny. But looking back now as a much older and (somewhat) more mature adult, I can start to see what he was emphasizing: “know your roots.”

As we celebrate and honor Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month, I encourage everyone to reflect on how we got to where we are today. This means reaching back generations before us and tracing our roots. Reflect on the stories we were told as children; reflect on the languages we have spoken; reflect on the foods we have eaten; reflect on the clothes we have worn. As we move forward in this rapidly evolving society, I encourage all of us to hold onto the experiences that we hold dear to our hearts and pass it on to the next generation so they may also know their roots.

What is a project that you’re working on that you’re excited about?
I participated in the school’s Shapiro Project during the summer of my M1 year. I had the opportunity to explore the world of total knee replacements in orthopedics and gained a lot of experience reading knee x-rays. Overall, it was an amazing experience and I was honored to be chosen to present my research in front of our faculty and my peers. My initial research has expanded to two additional research projects on total knee replacements.

I also just submitted my Path of Distinction in Medical Education application. The elective program includes a plethora of education and teaching experiences and a capstone project. I do see myself in academics later in my medical career, so now’s the time to explore the field and grow as a professional educator.

Anything else you would like to add?
I would like to give a shoutout to Dr. Vanessa Rein (LTC/Mentor) and Dr. Sancia Ferguson (BEAM Mentor) for always having my back and believing in me throughout my medical school journey! Thank you!

Xeng Vang

Xeng Vang, far right, poses with his brothers in a family photograph. Six years old at the time, Veng shares he knew from a young age that if he had no one else but his family, he would always be okay.

My name is Xeng Vang, and I am a Milwaukee native. I attended UW–Milwaukee for undergrad and matriculated to the School of Medicine and Public Health in 2022. In my free time, I enjoy building computers and keyboards for friends and family.

What does your heritage mean to you?
As a Hmong American man, I take great pride in my rich heritage. Although lacking an official country, the Hmong diaspora maintains a strong identity through our oral history, complex cultural practices, and values. My family, along with many other Hmong families fled the war in Laos during the late 1970s and eventually found refuge in the US. Struggle was a daily part of our lives, but it brought us closer within our families and as a community.

I knew from a young age that if I had no one else but my family, I would always be okay. Our struggles molded us into resilient and resourceful people — but above all, when I reflect on what my heritage means to me, I gain a deeper understanding of what courageousness is and what it looks like. It takes an immense amount of courage to uproot your life and leave behind everything you have known to start a new life for which success was not guaranteed. It takes courage to attend school in America when Hmong is the only language you have ever known. It takes courage to become the first Hmong American Mayor, to become the first Hmong American Olympian, to become the first Hmong American physician — it takes courage to be Hmong.

To me, my heritage means family and unity, overcoming odds, and maintaining fortitude for generations to come.

What do you hope we learn from history as we build our future in regard to this month’s celebration of Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi cultures?
The most wonderful and satisfying parts of life are found where diversity exists. I hope we all learn how to celebrate and enjoy heterogeneity instead of fearing what is different or unknown. We should aim to understand and appreciate the diversity around us. Whether that be through food, music, cultural practices, or anything in between, I am sure that in the end we will discover that we are more alike than we are different.

Anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to give a shoutout to The Hmong Institute here in Madison! They are an organization that serves the Hmong community as well as other underrepresented communities by offering education and health programs, community building, economic development and more! They are always looking for volunteers.