Building a New Homeland for the Hmong

By MNR News posted 05-14-2022 08:00

Realtor® Shang Thao-Berg helps Asian immigrants find connection and community through homeownership
More than 20 years ago, when Shang Thao-Berg worked in consumer lending and finance in the Twin Cities, she noticed that many of her older Hmong clients were leery of the modern credit-based economy. Like Thao-Berg herself, most of these mountain-dwelling ethnic people had emigrated to the United States in the wake of the Vietnam war, coming from countries like Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Thao-Berg’s native Laos.

“They believed that you shouldn’t accumulate any debt and almost everything you own should be paid for in cash,” Thao-Berg observed. “That was an issue when they had to qualify for a home or refinance. Most banks, like the one where I worked, based your interest rate on a credit score and other factors. We know to have a good credit is based on history, which most Hmong people didn’t have.”

Keenly aware of the importance of homeownership to immigrants trying to establish themselves in the U.S., Thao-Berg saw the real estate profession as a way to help new arrivals obtain their piece of the American Dream. The challenges of being a stranger in a foreign land were intimately familiar to her, and she was determined to help.

Coming to the United States in 1976 when she was just four years old, Thao-Berg’s earliest years were shaped by the turmoil of war and its aftermath. At the height of the Vietnam war, Laos was the most heavily bombed country in history as the CIA orchestrated a secret campaign to depose Pathet Lao, a communist leader allied with North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. When the U.S. pulled out of Laos in 1975, the communists retaliated against American-allied Hmong soldiers. Thao-Berg’s father, brother, and uncles, who had served in the military, were among them.
“Imagine having to escape to freedom during this time, not knowing if you were going to get shot or bombed 24/7,” Thao-Berg said. In the tragic aftermath of war, as many as 40,000 Hmong soldiers were dead. Because Thao-Berg’s family had fought for the U.S., they were given priority for immigration.
But resettling in the frigid upper Midwest, far from Laos’s tropical heat and soaking monsoons, was not a smooth transition for Thao-Berg’s family or the larger Hmong community. As her parents and family struggled to adapt, she quickly learned English and served as their interpreter. Focusing on her studies, Thao-Berg was self-disciplined and focused. 
“I didn’t have a typical American childhood. My values and perspective were different than most that were born here,” she recalled. “You always have that flight-and-fight urgency to work hard and survive. I think that’s the difference with the folks that were born here. There’s a lack of urgency to get things done fast.”
It is these qualities that drove her to excel academically, earning a BA in Business Management along with minors in Management Information Systems, and Marketing at Augsburg College. Later, they fueled her highly successful career as a Realtor®.
Working with a clientele that she estimates is at least 50% Hmong, she continues helping successive generations find homes. Tirelessly energetic, Thao-Berg is committed to building and celebrating the Hmong community. Her many activities include visiting suburban schools and educating young people about Hmong culture and history; sponsoring youth sports programs; and coordinating the annual fashion show during the Hmong New Year celebration at the River Center in St. Paul. Amid all this bustle, Thao-Berg is raising three children—all active in soccer and volleyball—plus, maintaining a home in Blaine. She even carves time to sit on the board of directors for Minnesota Realtors® (MNR), serve as chair for MNR’s Communications Committee, and a member of its Strategic Planning Committee.
“I’m thankful to be in a country that has no limits on becoming what you want,” Thao-Berg reflected, explaining that for too long the Hmong had no home of their own, and were outsiders in the southeast-Asian nations where they settled. “Now, I live in a place immersed with other ethnicities. That makes it easier to feel like you are a part of a community. Having leadership in areas that represents our diversity is good for our community, and makes us part of Minnesota, and the whole nation.”
And that, Thao-Berg concludes, is the kind of place where you can put down roots and create a home for generations to come.