Synagogue deals in poker champ

Thursday, September 22, 2011

One more example of the valley's diversity:

Congregation Beth Shalom is holding a poker tournament Saturday, the proceeds of which will benefit the synagogue's education program.

They'll play Texas Hold 'em, a game named for a state that's in the thick of the immigration debate.

The tournament's star attraction will be Jerry Yang, who was born in Laos, migrated to the United States and won $8.25 million in the World Series of Poker in 2007.

And Yang, a born-again Christian, was recruited for this event by Loren Gonella of Modesto, whom I wrote about awhile back because he's a Jewish guy who plays Santa Claus for the kids at the Redwood Center.

The poker tourney offers the chance to test your skills against Yang, who ranks 19th on the career earnings list with $8,370,927, and teaches others how to play high-stakes poker.

His story is compelling, and it certainly didn't begin or end four years ago with a fortunate hand of cards at a Las Vegas table.

Yang, 43, is a Hmong born in Laos in 1967. The CIA had recruited his father to serve in a guerrilla army, led by Gen. Vang Pao, that fought against the communists. Yang's family tried to flee the communist regime in Laos when he was only 7. They were nabbed by a communist patrol and had rifles pointed at their heads before his father talked the captors into letting them live.

The Yang family came to the United States when Jerry was 11, and after moving to Fresno, he progressed through the school system to become his high school class valedictorian before going on to earn his master's degree in health psychology at Pacific Union College, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Napa.

Yang then moved to Temecula, where he spent eight years in social work.

One day, watching poker on TV, he decided he wanted to play. He began studying the game and entered his first tournament in 2006. He left social work and, a year later, won the World Series of Poker from a field that began with 6,000 players. He took home the $8.25 million from the $19.4 million pot. Yang has had two other notable paydays: $75,000 and $30,380 in tournaments last year.

After winning the 2007 event, he began his practice of donating a percentage of his winnings to charities by splitting $825,000 among the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Feed the Children and the Ronald McDonald House. Overall, he's given more than $2 million to charitable causes, including Hmong causes.

He's also opened restaurants in Madera and Merced he calls Pocket 8's Sushi and Grill. He met Gonella at the Merced restaurant about 18 months ago.

"I go in there once a month or so," Gonella said. "Generally, I'll see him there. We struck up a conversation about what's going on (the synagogue's fund-raiser). He said, 'It's a good organization and a great cause. I'll be there.' "

Texas Hold 'em for charity at a synagogue with a world champion from Laos recruited by a Jewish guy who plays Santa Claus.

Diverse enough for you?



Achievements of First-Generation Hmong Youth: Findings from the Youth Development Study.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Author: Swartz, Teresa, Jennifer C. Lee, and Jeylan T. Mortimer
St. Paul is home to the largest urban Hmong population in the United States. The first generation of Hmong immigrant children have come of age in this country, passing through American schools, beginning their work life, and starting their own families. The Youth Development Studyラan ongoing longitudinal study of youth development started in 1987 that focuses on education, work, family, and mental healthラis the basis for this article, which explores how these young Hmong people are faring as they embark on their adult lives. The authors found that although Hmong refugees came to the United States with few economic resources and faced significant cultural and linguistic barriers, the combination of family, community, institutional, and public social supports have promoted the academic achievement of Hmong children. With respect to labor force participation, the authors found that a lower proportion of Hmong respondents participated in the labor force both before and after high school. To some degree, they attribute this to the Hmong emphasis on eduation and parental restrictions on adolescent work. Finally, the authors found that Hmong adolescence and the transition to adulthood take distinct forms than for other ethnic groups. Early marriage and teen childbearing have not had the same negative educational consequences for Hmong young women as they have for non-Hmong young people.

Journal: CURA Reporter
Publication date: 2003
Publisher: Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota.
Sponsor: Supported by grants from CURA's Fachlty Interactive Research Program.
Pages: 33 (1): 15-21.



Hmong youth learns from childhood rebellion

KITCHENER, Ont. — As a child, Peter Her went to First Hmong Mennonite Church with his mother and younger brothers, but during his teenage years he tried to distance himself from his Hmong roots, his faith and the church.

“I didn’t want anything to do with God or with my people. I didn’t want to be Hmong. I didn’t want to be Asian. I wanted to be like everybody else. I wanted to be accepted by cool people,” he said.

Today, 22-year-old Her wants to use his education, Hmong language skills and understanding of Hmong culture to stop the trend of youth leaving the church and Christian faith.

“I definitely don’t want to see other young people go through the same problems that I did,” said Her, the eldest of six boys born to parents who came to Canada as refugees in the 1970s. Both of his parents were born in Thailand.

Her spent the summer working with youth and children at First Hmong Mennonite Church, a congregation of Hmong refugees who resettled in Canada in the 1970s.

His service assignment was made possible through Summerbridge, a Mennonite Central Committee-supported program open to people from Mennonite congregations of diverse cultural background.

The program is supported by MCC Canada, provincial MCCs and the home churches of participants. Her was among 15 program participants this summer.

Looking back, Her said his childhood rebellion led to dropping out of school and a life of drug abuse and violence.

“I worked 40 hours a week, and on weekends I would drink and have fun. But I wasn’t having fun. It wasn’t satisfying,” he said.

He started paying attention to how his co-workers lived. One man in particular, he noticed, didn’t talk about his Christian faith but lived his faith.

“His life was different than most people,” Her said. “He was loving, caring and compassionate. He had a purpose for life. He had direction. He knew where he was going, and I didn’t have that. My life was going downhill.”

From his early childhood churchgoing, Her knew he could find answers to his problems in the Bible. So he started reading the Bible and listening to sermons posted on the Internet.

Knowing that “God loves me so much, even though I have done all this crazy stuff” has given him new direction and purpose. Two years ago, he quit his job to go to school. He is a now a second-year student at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener.

Summerbridge enabled him to work not only with youth but also with older people.

Respecting elders, he said, is an important part of Hmong culture. Although he already speaks and reads the Hmong language, he improved his language skills and understanding of Hmong culture.

One of his goals is to return to Thailand and get to know his relatives living there.

“The Hmong population is very small, and life is hard for the Hmong minority,” he said. “I want to go back and let them know about God’s love and the peace that God can bring.”

First Hmong Mennonite Church is a congregation of about 200 people. Her’s mother and many others in the congregation were sponsored by churches through Canada’s private sponsorship program.



The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

While people of all cultures experience sleep paralysis in similar ways, the specific form and intensity it takes varies from one group to the next

Alexis Madrigal - Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Follow him on Google Plus. More

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.

Madrigal co-founded Longshot Magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also cofounded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Washington, DC.
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Close The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills
By Alexis Madrigal
Sep 14 2011, 11:52 AM ET
While people of all cultures experience sleep paralysis in similar ways, the specific form and intensity it takes varies from one group to the next

They died in their sleep one by one, thousands of miles from home. Their median age was 33. All but one -- 116 of the 117 -- were healthy men. Immigrants from southeast Asia, you could count the time most had spent on American soil in just months. At the peak of the deaths in the early 1980s, the death rate from this mysterious problem among the Hmong ethnic group was equivalent to the top five natural causes of death for other American men in their age group.

Something was killing Hmong men in their sleep, and no one could figure out what it was. There was no obvious cause of death. None of them had been sick, physically. The men weren't clustered all that tightly, geographically speaking. They were united by dislocation from Laos and a shared culture, but little else. Even House would have been stumped.

Doctors gave the problem a name, the kind that reeks of defeat, a dragon label on the edge of the known medical world: Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. SUNDS. It didn't do much in terms of diagnosis or treatment, but it was easier to track the periodic conferences dedicated to understanding the problem.

Twenty-five years later, Shelley Adler's new book pieces together what happened, drawing on interviews with the Hmong population and analyzing the extant scientific literature. Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind Body Connection is a mind-bending exploration of how what you believe interacts with how your body works. Adler, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, comes to a stunning conclusion: In a sense, the Hmong were killed by their beliefs in the spirit world, even if the mechanism of their deaths was likely an obscure genetic cardiac arrhythmia that is prevalent in southeast Asia.

* * *

By 1986, the Hmong deaths had slowed, but remained a striking epidemiological fact. Adler was a graduate student at UCLA studying traditional belief narratives at the time. She'd been researching what she called "nocturnal pressing spirit attacks," or what scientific literature called sleep paralysis. Fascinatingly, sleep paralysis is known to just about all cultures, and it is almost always associated with nocturnal evil. In Indonesia, it's called digeunton ("pressed on"). In China, it's bei gui ya ("held by a ghost"). The Hungarians know it as boszorkany-nyomas, "witches' pressure." In Newfoundland, the spirit that comes is called the Old Hag, and the experience of sleep paralysis, ag rog, "hag ridden." The Dutch name comes closest to what English speakers know. They call the presence nachtmerrie, the night-mare. The "mare" in question comes from the German mahr or Old Norse mara, which denoted a generally female supernatural being who in Adler's words, "lay on people's chests, suffocating them." The etymology of mare isn't clear, but the term is a fruit of the Indo-European language tree, likely from moros (death), mer (drive out), or mar (to pound, bruise, crush).

Across cultures, night-mare visits play out in very similar ways. Victims experience the strange feeling of being "awake." While they have a realistic perception of their environment, they can't move. Worse, they feel an "overwhelming fear and dread" accompanied by chest pressure and difficulty breathing. Scientists have a pretty good grasp of how all of this happens. The paralysis, the feeling of pressure on the chest, all that is explained quite nicely within the scientific models of sleep. During sleep paralysis, a person experiences an "out of sequence" REM state. In REM sleep, we dream and our minds shut off the physical control of the body; we're supposed to be temporarily paralyzed. But we are not supposed to be conscious in REM sleep. Yet that is precisely what happens during sleep paralysis: it is a mix of brain states that are normally held separate.

And then there is the weird stuff, the Old Hag part, the night-mare. People who have an experience of sleep paralysis tend to feel some horrible, evil being is near them. "I just knew this presence was there. An ominous presence ... not only could I not see it, but I couldn't defend myself, I couldn't do anything," one victim told Adler. This feeling is consistent across cultures, even if it goes by different names and presents through the culture one knows.

I experienced sleep paralysis twice in college. I can vouch for the sheer terror that attends the experience. I saw -- no, felt -- an evil presence to my left. I can't tell you what was evil about it or how I knew it was so nasty. But I did. As the experience progressed, it came closer. It didn't feel like my life was at risk. That was, in fact, too small. It felt like the presence was after something else, probably what you'd call my soul or my being, even though intellectually I'm a straight materialist. I woke up more scared than I've ever been in my life. Overwhelming fear. Overwhelming dread. Overwhelming fear and dread. When I read about sleep paralysis, I immediately identified that presence (which remained just out of my visual field to the my left) as the Old Hag.

But there is a one big difference between sleep paralysis, which impacts a substantial percentage of the global population at least once, and what the Hmong immigrants experienced in the 1980s. The Old Hag was terrifying but harmless; whatever happened in the night to the Hmong killed them.

* * *

Adler studied the Hmong and their relationship to what they call tsog tsuam for years and years. That research forms the core of her book. Adler went out into the field. She collected dozens of experiences of sleep paralysis among the Hmong both from her own interviews and other researchers. One 49-year old Adler interviewed provided this typical experience:

I remember a few months after I first came here -- I was asleep. I turned out the light and everything, but I kind of think ... and then -- all of a sudden, I felt that -- I cannot move. I just feel it, but I don't see anything, but I -- then I tried to move my hand, but I cannot move my hand. I keep trying, but I cannot move myself. I know it is tsog tsuam. I am so scared. I can hardly breathe. I think, "Who will help? What if I die?"

She brought her background in exploring traditional belief systems to bear on attacks like the one above. She found that the nighttime attacks were part of a matrix of beliefs held by both animist and Christian Hmong. A powerful folklore had built up around tsog tsuam that included both causes and cures for the attacks.

"When the Hmong don't worship properly, do not perform the religious ritual properly or forget to sacrifice or whatever, then the ancestor spirits or the village spirits do not want to guard them," one man explained to Adler. "That's why the evil spirit is able to come and get them." And for a lot of reasons, the Hmong in the late 1970s and early 1980s were not able to worship properly.

The ethnic group fought a guerrilla war against the government of Laos with U.S. backing during the Vietnam War. When the Laotian communists won, many Hmong struck out for America to avoid reprisals. The U.S. government decided to scatter the Hmong randomly across the U.S. to 53 different cities, breaking up the immigration patterns we generally see. In short order, the Hmong organized and made a "secondary migration" to California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The immigrants ran into all kinds of problems making their way in the States. Highland Laos, where farming and hunting were the norm, was not Minneapolis-St. Paul or Fresno. Unemployment was obscenely high and the sense of community that many had enjoyed in the old country was gone.

Some Hmong felt that they had not properly honored the memories of their ancestors, which was a known risk factor among the Hmong for being visited by the tsog tsuam. Once the night-mare visitations began, a shaman was often needed to set things right. And in the scattered communities of Hmong across the country, they might not have access to the right person. Without access to traditional rituals, shamans, and geographies, the Hmong were unable to provide themselves psychic protection from the spirits of their sleep.

Drawing on all this evidence, Adler makes the provocative claim that the Laotian immigrants of the 1980s were in some sense killed by their powerful cultural belief in night spirits. It was not a simple process.

"It is my contention that in the context of severe and ongoing stress related to cultural disruption and national resettlement (exacerbated by intense feelings of powerlessness about existence in the United States), and from the perspective of a belief system in which evil spirits have the power to kill men who do not fulfill their religious obligations," Adler writes, "the solitary Hmong man confronted by the numinous terror of the night-mare (and aware of its murderous intent) can die of SUNDS."

Her argument amounts to a stirring and chilling case for the power of the nocebo, the flipside to the placebo effect. While placebo studies have grown in importance, the nocebo effect has not been studied well in scientific literature, in part because of the ethical issues involved in deliberately doing something that might harm people. Limited studies suggest that it is real and it is powerful. For example, doctors have found that patients made to feel anxious need larger amounts of opiates after surgery than other people. They've found that pretending to expose people who say they are sensitive to electromagnetic radiation to cell phone signals can give them debilitating headaches. Even patients' level of side effects from arthritis medication seem determined by those patients' beliefs about those medicines. Logically speaking, if the evidence shows the upside of belief, why wouldn't we believe in the downside, too? And why wouldn't we believe that the intensity of the downside would vary with the intensity of the belief, even if those beliefs were about something unscientific, like spirits or astrology?

If you're still unsure that the nocebo effect could actually lead to premature death, Adler cites one stunning example of the effect from China. A team of researchers found that Chinese Americans die younger than expected "if they have a combination of disease and birth year which Chinese astrology and medicine considers ill-fated." That is to say, if they were born in a year that was astrologically linked to poor lung health, they would die an average of five years earlier from lung-related disease than someone born in some other year with the same disease. Similar effects were not found in the white populations around them. And how much sooner you died depended on the people's "strength of commitment to traditional Chinese culture."

Think about that for a minute. If you were born under a bad sign, you died five years younger from the same diseases as people born under good signs. But only if you believed in Chinese astrology.

Results like these seem improbable, or anti-reason, or something. But Adler's book is an attack on the "Oh, come on!" form of argument. She uses her understanding of both science and traditional belief structures to argue for what she calls "local biology."

"Since meaning has biological consequences, and meanings vary across cultures, biology can operate differently in different contexts," she writes. "In other words, biology is 'local' -- the 'same' biological processes in different places have different 'effects' on people."

The truth is that we don't understand the relationship between belief and biology quite as well as we'd like to think. That's one reason sleep paralysis is so useful as a probe for the boundary of mind and body. The night-mare is "a link between our biological and cultural selves." While people of all cultures experience sleep paralysis in similar ways, the specific form and intensity it takes varies by culture, soaking up whatever local spirits or monsters happen to be lurking nearby.



Students honored for Hmong story book

Monday, September 12, 2011

An award-winning multicultural literary magazine is honoring D.C. Everest Oral History Project students for their creative work in promoting cultural diversity and an appreciation of nature and ecology.

The magazine Skipping Stones is awarding D.C. Everest High School students who worked on “Zaj Lus: A Bilingual Hmong Story Book” with 2011 Skipping Stones Youth Honor Awards. “Zaj Lus” is a bilingual story book that helps pass along Hmong folk tales to younger generations.

Yer Thor, one of three oral project leaders and a senior at Everest High School, nominated “Zaj Lus” for the award. “It is a bilingual book, written in both English and Hmong. It is especially important to the Wausau area,” Thor said. “It is vital to share the Hmong culture with those in the surrounding area and across the world.”

All the work on the book, including the design and layout, was done by Hmong students working with the Oral History Project. There were three project leaders, Yer Thor, Kim Yang and Anna Thor, four assistants and 13 student volunteers. The illustrations were done by Bao Lee and Noghlibelinda Yang, both graduates of Everest High. To find out more about the Oral History Project or to order this and other student-produced books, log on to



Hmong police officer assigned to North Minneapolis

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Officer Kou Vang told a roomful of young Hmong soccer players that he grew up wanting to be a police officer and remembers watching Wonder Woman and Starsky & Hutch on TV. He said in everything he’s done in his almost 21-year career, his interest has always been with community, Hmong community in particular.

When he worked in the gang unit, he also started, as a volunteer, an after-school program of mentoring kids to counteract gang recruiting and keep kids in school.

It’s the Farview soccer kids who’ve been working nearly three years to “get him up here,” and while their idea was to get a Hmong officer on the day shift, this may be even better – he’s on the Community Engagement Team. His job is to seek out Asians throughout the city; as he said, the largest concentration of Hmong is on the Northside, so he will be here much of the time. “Asian usually don’t want to say anything,” he said.

“I’ll get to know all the organizations, let them know who I am, and that I’m not here to arrest your kid. I want to be part of meetings, be a liaison. Build relationships.” While he said he doesn’t want to just show up when someone calls 911, “I’m still an officer, and I will enforce if something happen in my presence.”

The unit just started this year. “I would like to bring my ‘brothers’ in. We need more than one officer,” Vang said. “Ten!” someone shouted from the back of the room. While doing their research and advocacy, assisted by Jay Clark from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota, the students, teens and younger, found that there are several Hmong officers throughout Minneapolis, but none on the North Side.

Vang said he worked on the North Side for six years at the start of his career, served in the gang unit for six years until it was disbanded, and then six years in the Fifth Precinct. He is now based at the Special Operations Center at 41st and Dupont North.

Minneapolis Fifth Ward Council Member Don Samuels, who held the special “Dessert with Don” meeting for Hmong adults to receive tornado recovery information, explained that many in the police department management opposed having officers working in the communities from which they come. They fear officers won’t be objective in dealing with people with whom they may have had past relationships. Samuels said he doesn’t agree, because “small towns have cops, you don’t have to go to the next town to be a cop.”

Interpreter Gao Vang, a city employee on hand to translate if there had been any non-English-speaking Hmong, talked about her background, too. She explained that her job is to translate for residents, but also to work will all city departments to help them be “culturally specific.” While she offices downtown, she said she meets most people out in the community where they are comfortable and don’t have to worry about finding and paying for parking.

“I grew up in Minneapolis. Like many of you, my parents came from Laos. At age 8 or 9 I moved to Northeast from South. I attended Jenny Lind, Northeast Middle School, and graduated from North High School. It was a great school, I had a great experience. Good counselors, teachers.” She talked about her self-designed degree from the University of Minnesota and how she’s now looking to go to graduate school while continuing to work.

“So how old do you think I am?” asked the 2007 U of M graduate. The answer: 25. She encouraged the kids to pay attention to school and think about doing what she did, take PSEO, Post Secondary Enrollment Options. She was able to get free college credit by taking college classes while still in high school, 11th grade in fact. “It saved a lot of money.”

“I’m willing to help you guys get resources. I know you want to help your parents. It’s difficult for them to even find a good job [if you can’t speak English]. Education is the key to success,” Gao Vang said.

Then the group took a break and snacked on tapioca and fruit. The din of happy charged-up children filled the room at Lindquist Apartments, and everyone posed for a photo before heading off to get the kids home before dark, leaving Samuels and a handful of other residents to talk about recent events.

Kou Vang’s office number is 612-673-3814, Gao Vang is at 612-673-2915. Emails: and



S.J. artist working to connect cultures through her music

Friday, September 2, 2011

Yami Lee, seen at the Empire Theater on Aug. 16, hopes to be a music star in the Southeast Asian and mainstream markets.

STOCKTON - When she performs at open-mic nights in and around Stockton, even at venues where her sound - she calls it "folk R&B" - isn't the popular sound, Yami Lee plays to cheers and encouragement.

When she sings along the region's circuit of Hmong New Year celebrations and Hmong talent shows, the response can sometimes seem more subdued - except that Lee knows how to read praise in a Hmong context.

"When they want to compliment you, they don't tell you," she said. "They go tell your grandma."

The 18-year-old singer-songwriter, like many American-born children of Hmong refugees, straddles two cultures, two languages - experiences that she is attempting to harmonize through her music.

"I want to reach out to everybody," said Lee, a recent Edison High School graduate. "I want to reach out to the whole community."

During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong, an ethnic minority group living in Laos, to fight communist forces as secret allies of the United States.

After the war ended, thousands of Hmong escaped to Thailand, fleeing persecution in their home country. More than 130,000 eventually were resettled in the United States. Lee's parents were among them.

Both her mother and father are deaf. Lee said her musical tastes were shaped, instead, by older siblings.

"I grew up being very Americanized," she said. "I grew up listening to mainstream music."

While a student at Hamilton Middle School, Lee worked up the nerve to perform at the campus' annual talent show. She sang "Fallin'" by Alicia Keys and won first place. The experience inspired her to pursue singing as a career.

"It was so exciting. People kept saying, 'You sang so good, you should continue.' All that good stuff that artists want to hear," Lee said. "I entertained people, and I made people happy. That makes me feel good inside."

She taught herself to play the guitar and to compose music. She posted videos of her performances on YouTube. At first, only a handful of visitors were interested enough to play them. Now her songs draw thousands of views.

"The Internet has been immensely important for young Hmong-American musicians and artists," said Nicholas Poss, an adjunct professor at Ohio's Ashland University who is studying Hmong music. "Hmong people are widely dispersed around the country and the world, so digital communications have been important in building a sense of community."

For first-generation Hmong immigrants, scattered across the globe, popular music was a way to preserve community connections separated by geography, Poss has argued.

For contemporary artists, it can be a way to connect generations now separated by language and life experience.

"They are more likely to express their Hmong identity by selecting topics relevant to the Hmong community, performing in the Hmong language, or referencing symbols of Hmong culture," Poss said. "Many artists feature personal narratives of living in the Hmong diaspora, which I believe ties them back to the older generation who would express their own stories and feelings through traditional verbal arts like ... sung poems."

Lee is especially drawn to ballads and love songs.

"I write a lot of sad, slow songs," she said. "Everybody can relate to them."

So far, most contemporary Hmong artists seem to have a primarily Hmong fan base, Poss said.

Lee said that, while she doesn't want to lose her Hmong audience, she is striving for broader appeal.

But although mainstream Americans have been introduced to Hmong people and the Hmong culture in recent years through actress Brenda Song, of Disney Channel's "The Suite Life on Deck," and the 2008 Clint Eastwood film "Gran Torino," which featured a Hmong cast, it's not easy for Asians to find commercial success in pop culture, Lee said.

"When there's an Asian artist in the media, they don't always know where to put them," she said. "They keep them on the shelf."

Dwaine Downton is Lee's newly hired manager.

"Everything is visual at first," he said. "When people see Yami, they don't know that she's R&B. They don't see pop. They think, 'She's Asian. I don't know what to do with her.' "

Instead, Downton said he wants to introduce audiences - as many as possible - to Lee's voice first.

"She sounds amazing," he said. "What I see is that she can become the first major Asian-American artist in America. That's what I see. That's what I hear."

In the meantime, Lee happily carries her guitar to coffeehouses for open-mic nights. She accepts invitations to perform at high schools and churches and Hmong cultural events.

"Just to make people happy, that's my ambition," she said. "And to sing songs that people can relate to - about love, life, family."