When KARE 11 hired a new personality for its morning show earlier this year, the station broke new ground in local broadcasting. Their new employee, Gia Vang, is the first Hmong-American anchor in the Twin Cities market. For some local viewers, the hire is a long time coming.
“Our Minnesota community desperately needs someone with Gia’s talent, personality and life experiences to influence local news coverage so it better represents more of the narratives of this diverse community,” says Bao Vang, a former morning anchor in Wisconsin who teaches high school journalists at the University of St. Thomas. “I haven’t watched local morning news for a long time. Maybe seeing Gia’s presence on air will inspire me to do so again.”
Gia Vang, 33, grew up in California as one of 10 children born to parents who met in a refugee camp in Thailand. The entire family would watch the local news every night, planting an early seed in Vang’s head, one that would bloom while attending California State University, Sacramento. After graduation, Vang worked at TV stations in Eugene, Ore., Phoenix, Kansas City and Fresno, Calif., before being lured to the Twin Cities, where her father currently resides.
Vang quickly adapted to her new surroundings, exploring more of the Twin Cities in her first six weeks than most of us have in the past two years. She’s already checked out the Walker Art Center, two Twins games, Brit’s Pub, Lake Harriet, Cedar Cultural Center, Electric Fetus, a half-dozen soccer games at Allianz Field, Hmong Village and the Stone Arch Bridge. Vang also digs the Midtown Global Market, where she joined us to discuss making the transition from Fresno, representing her community and how she manages to stay perky in the A.M. without the help of coffee.
What are your first impressions of Minnesota?
People have been so welcoming. That means a lot. I’ve been able to pack a lot in. I think it’s important to not just come here and live in my bubble. I’m trying to figure out what makes this area unique. I’m still trying to understand Minnesota Nice and that whole passive-aggressive thing. But I really enjoy talking to people. Part of my job in the morning is making viewers believe I’m their friend, someone they know. When I’m out and about, I want people to say hi to me. I think that’s wonderful.
What’s the worst fan encounter you’ve ever had?
Some people are picky about the types of words you use. I once had a woman come up to me and tell me to stop using the term “guys.” She never even said hello. I guess it says something that she felt she knew me well enough that she could be so upfront. That’s been the worst of it, so that’s not bad.
Why is it rare to see a Hmong-American on the air?
We’re still a relatively young culture. We’ve been taught by our parents to become lawyers and doctors, jobs that bring respect to the family. We’re learning to say that we might want to do things that don’t necessarily fall within those parameters. My mom and dad definitely wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer. Then I went to college and started majoring in journalism. They said, “What’s that?” But they also said, “If that’s what you want to do, we’ll support you.” I’m really lucky.
Almost your entire family lives in California, but your dad moved to St. Paul seven years ago. What’s it been like for him to watch you on TV every morning?
He’s been very, very proud — and really silly. Like a lot of people his age, he’s just learning about social media and Facebook. He’s gone overboard posting pictures of me on the air. He’s an interesting guy and I mean that in the most positive way. I’m still learning things about him. A couple of years ago, we were in Ohio at my sister’s graduation and he was telling people stories about how he escaped into Thailand in Laotian. I was like, “Dad, I didn’t know you could speak Laotian like that.” And he told me he actually speaks four languages. I’ve also learned that he writes Hmong poetry.
Have you noticed differences between the Hmong community here in Minnesota and in Fresno and Sacramento, where you grew up?
I have. I feel like Hmong folks here are more progressive than they are in the Fresno area. The elders in California are mostly Hmong men and they have a lot of say about what happens in the community. In the Twin Cities, people respect and love their elders, but they may not necessarily have to operate the way the elders think they should operate. I definitely think women have more of a say here as well.
Because there are so few Hmong-Americans on the air, do you feel any added pressure to represent and be a role model?
I think I have a responsibility, but I also have the perspective that I can’t make every event. I have to pick and choose how I want to spend my time outside of work. But, yes, I’m a journalist with the responsibility to put a different lens to stories in the area, making sure we are representing all communities in the most accurate light.
You’ve worked in Kansas City, Eugene and Phoenix, but this is your first time anchoring in the morning. How are you adjusting to the different format?
The evening shift can be very cut and dried. Here’s the news. No personality, really. There’s just not enough time. One of the wonderful things about morning shows, at this station in particular, is that you get to be yourself. President Trump’s remarks about certain congresswomen hit me personally. I’ve never been told explicitly to go back to my country, but I’ve certainly felt like I don’t belong. I talked about that on the air, but I also made sure to say I understood that there are people who were 100 percent behind Trump. So you just have to find a way to balance it.
And what about the hours?
It’s actually been an easy adjustment. I’m a pretty good napper. So when I get home, I go straight to bed and sleep for two or three hours. Then I get up and I’m good until 10 p.m. I get to go to happy hours now. Never been able to do that before. I wake up around 2 a.m. and bring an apple or strawberries to work. I don’t drink coffee. Never been a fan. I’ll have a cup of tea. Strangely enough, my co-anchor Kris Laudien doesn’t drink coffee, either. He’s got way more energy than I do. I’m like, “What are you having?”