MEY CHAO-LEE, CULTURAL COMPETENCY COORDINATOR
Meycho (Mey) Chao-Lee takes nothing for granted. Not the car that she drives to work, nor the carpet that she walks across in her living room, nor the ability to speak her mind without fear of death at the hands of Communists.
In the country where she was born, bombs rain down on villages. There is no electricity, no medicine. Fields are farmed by hand, and there are no irrigation systems – they simply pray for rain.
Chao-Lee, who fled Laos with her family as a girl and recently became the first Mien to earn a master’s degree in social work from Chico State University, has dedicated her life to helping those who share her culture. “It’s not an obligation – I’m honored to do this,” she says. “It’s a great privilege to be able to help my people.”
In the early 1990s, many Southeast Asian people came into Shasta County Mental Health for services, and Chao-Lee would interpret for them. She suggested launching a clinic for people who don’t speak English, and worked with Mental Health to make that happen in 1994. She now works as cultural competency coordinator for the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency.
Her intense passion for her work doesn’t end at 5 pm, however. She has been involved with every Mien New Year celebration since 1988 and every Mien graduation ceremony since 1995, and has participated in the Latino Coalition for 10 years. She broadcasts on the local Mien radio station every week, sharing news, culture and history. She recently finished a term as interim chairperson for Shasta County Mien Community, a nonprofit organization.
Meanwhile, the 34-year-old married mother of three caring, respectful sons describes herself as “a daughter, a mom, a wife, a granddaughter. My family is really important to me.”
Their road to America was not easy. Her father and maternal grandfather fought in the war in Laos, and although her father escaped to Thailand, her grandfather was killed by the Pathet Lao government. Several times, Chao-Lee’s mother tried unsuccessfully to escape Communist persecution by crossing the Mekong River with her two young children. They finally broke free, leaving their hut in Laos for a refugee camp in Thailand.
“It wasn’t a decision. It was a matter of survival – of when you can cross the river,” she says. “Most Mien individuals don’t know how to swim; in my family, only my dad knew how to swim. It was so cold. There was a lot of bombing and gunshots – they just shoot into the water. My mom is my hero… my mom and my dad. She’s an incredible woman. We were in the middle of the war area, she had two young children, and Communist soldiers came in the night to capture her husband.”
In 1982, Chao-Lee’s family moved to the United States through a refugee rescue program. “We were the only Mien family in Kent, Washington,” she says. When her grandfather in Visalia became ill, it was Chao-Lee’s father’s duty to care for him, so they met in the middle – and on Aug. 3, 1987, they arrived in Redding. It was here that she met her husband, Lo, a refugee orphan with six siblings. She became a mom as a teenager.
In 1994, Chao-Lee graduated from Enterprise High School and was part of the first-ever Mien graduation ceremony on campus. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Simpson University with distinction, and last spring, she earned her master’s degree in social work – also with distinction, she says proudly – from Chico State University.
“My life was stable and everything was on target when I went to grad school. During grad school, my mom and dad became ill, and my grandfather got Alzheimer’s,” Chao-Lee says. As the oldest sibling, she was responsible for caring for her ailing family members, while continuing in her role as a wife and mother, shuttling her children to sports and activities, remaining active in her church, participating in community events and commuting to Chico. Because her culture believes that a woman belongs at home, she was determined not to let her educational endeavors hinder her family and community obligations. Her driving force: “I will be successful,” she says.
Professionally, her goal is to provide clinical services, particularly to those who don’t speak English. “Even if they’re not Mien, I can communicate with them because I can speak broken English,” she says.
She feels counseling is her calling. “I’m told by community members that it’s rare to find someone who loves their people as much as I do. In the middle of the night I’ll get a call where someone says, ‘I need someone to talk to,’ and I just listen. When you give trust, respect and confidentiality, they’ll remember you for a long time and be grateful to you forever.”
For her people and her culture, she dreams of a “home” – “a small center that the Mien Community can call their second home, where the staff speaks the language and kids learn their heritage and elders can share their stories.”
Because the Mien people have no written language, Chao-Lee is among many who fear the culture is getting lost. That’s why she enjoys sharing it with Shasta County through special events and performances that “don’t happen in other cities,” she says. She has ensured that her sons – Alex, 19, Brandon, 15, and Kyle, 7 – are proud of their heritage. The Mien people, about 200 families strong in Shasta County, are loyal and family-centered, she says. About 80 percent of Mien students are on the honor roll. And “when there’s a death in the family, we don’t just bring casseroles – we bring paper towels, food, money, soda. I don’t have to call and say I need help – they come help.”
She hopes her academic and professional achievements make those people proud. “Who I am today is part of the people who have passed through my life,” she says. “I had a lot of things working against me. Teen moms who live in poverty can still succeed. They need a lot of love and a lot of forgiveness, and my family has been very supportive and forgiving. I have seen pain in the past, but I also see hope and love for our future.”
“Never accept ‘no.’ There’s always a way. Don’t let someone take your dream away, even if you don’t get there as fast as you want. There are a lot of stumbles, a lot of rocks, a lot of falling. You can get up. If I can do it, as a first-generation Mien young girl and teenage mother – to get where I am today – anyone can.”