Kao was born in the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, where her family had fled to escape the ethnic cleansing of the Hmong, a preliterate highland tribal people who fought with the American soldiers during the Vietnam War. After six years in the refugee camp, the family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where they have lived since.
As an undergraduate at Carleton College, Kao majored in American studies, with minors in cross-cultural and women and gender studies. Kao received her master's of fine arts in creative nonfiction writing at Columbia University in 2005.
Kao received the Page Foundation awards for excellence three years in succession, the Gilman Scholarship for International Study, the Freeman in Asia Scholarship for international study in Asia, and a Dean Fellowship from Columbia University. Previously, Kao taught a Columbia University-sponsored workshop for writers of color. Hmong Movement has published a piece of her writing "Dreaming in Time. Paj Ntaub Voice," and her poem titled "Mai. In the Shower" was published recently as well.
Kao has taught as an adjunct professor of writing at Concordia University and now runs a writing agency called Words Wanted in Minneapolis. Recently, she served on the Minnesota State Arts Board on a judging panel for prose in for the 2012-2013 academic year. She is enrolled in the Shannon Leadership Institute and finished her interim as "Artist-in-Residence" at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Kao lives in Minnesota with her husband and has recently completed her second book, due to be published in 2013. Selected as a "Minnesota Original" by public radio, she is interviewed and reads at http://www.mnoriginal.org/episode/mn-original-show-104/kao-kalia-yang/