Hmong Elders Are Stockpiling Rice Because They Know What Hunger Feels Like

Younger generations haven’t seen firsthand the horrors of malnourishment

Kao Kalia Yang
Published in
4 min readMar 24, 2020


Photo: Nipol Plobmuang/EyeEm/Getty Images

WWhen news of the coronavirus reached the Hmong-American community in early February, many elders counseled younger generations to prepare. How do you brace for a coming pandemic? You buy rice. Lots and lots of rice. When there is nothing else, if you have rice, your children will not starve. Many of the younger folk laughed. The less seasoned and more affluent Hmong, like in many other communities, are walking away from a diet centered around rice because of the dangers of diabetes and obesity. They joke about how thin and beautiful they were all going to be if rice disappeared from the markets.

Still, grandmothers and grandfathers went to the stores and bought whatever rice they could afford. Never mind the mockery and the dirty looks, which came in droves. All over social media, from late February into early March, younger people chastised their elders for stockpiling rice, made memes and commiserated about how embarrassed they were on account of their hoarding forebears. A beloved aunt of mine who couldn’t drive implored her children to plan for the virus by going out and buying rice. When her children refused, she cried to my mother, “I only care about their children—all the little ones who will go hungry if everything stops.”

In early March, with the news that the virus was spreading near our home in the Twin Cities, my mother asked me to buy rice. I went to a local Vietnamese grocery store. I bought two bags: 50 pounds of sticky rice and 50 pounds of regular Jasmine rice. I do not laugh at her fear. I understand its origins.

My father and mother were of the generation that grew up looking toward the sky for rice.

Hmong folk were recruited to fight on behalf of the United States during the Secret War in Laos from 1962 to 1975. During that time, the U.S. government would drop rice bags from the sky to feed the people. The military knew that the Hmong couldn’t farm anymore, not with the continual shelling and the fighting. There were more bombs dropped on Laos than all the bombs dropped during WWII combined. The rice…