Hmong interpreter maintains the bridge between two cultures

Monday, October 19, 2009

Merced Sun-Star - SUN-STAR PHOTO BY LISA JAMES Gao Chang poses outside of the Merced Commons Apartments at a crime prevention class last Thursday. Chang is the Merced's only Hmong/ Lao interpreter.

The victim was young, maybe 16. Somehow the Merced police officer assigned to her high school had learned what was going on: her stepbrother was sexually assaulting her at home.

The girl's mother, who came to Merced from Laos, spoke no English. And that's where interpreter Gao Chang came in.

The school officer walked into Chang's small office last Tuesday at the police department's south station. "He said, 'We need to go to talk to the mother,'" Chang recounted later.

They left for the victim's house immediately. Chang did the talking. He told the woman what they suspected. He gave her information about where to take her daughter for free counseling, then explained that social services could take away her children if she failed to protect them from abuse at home.

As Chang left he handed the woman his card. Don't hesitate to phone with questions, he told her.

Before his workday ended, he answered one more call. A young man who spoke only Hmong had failed to stop at a stop sign on M Street. Someone needed to explain what he'd done wrong.

Chang is one of two interpreters employed by the city of Merced, and he is the only one who speaks Lao and Hmong. Officially, Chang works for the police department, but he's frequently called on by other city agencies.

Besides responding to murder scenes and traffic stops, he spends his days decoding trash and water bills for recent immigrants, translating city brochures, resolving landlord-tenant disputes and explaining why households within city limits aren't allowed to keep more than two live chickens.

He is an adviser, a liaison and, sometimes, a lifeline. In many ways, he is the city's link to its Southeast Asian population.

"Anytime someone calls speaking Hmong or Lao, they're transferred to Gao," Merced Police Lt. Andre Matthews said. "They get to know him fast. They know he's the one who's going to help."

Roughly 10,000 Southeast Asians live in the Merced area, according to Lao Family Community Inc., a local nonprofit. They began coming here 30 years ago in the wake of the Vietnam War as refugees from the mountains and jungles of Laos, and they are still arriving today.

Hmong soldiers were recruited by the CIA in the 1960s to wage a secret war against Communist rebels in Laos. Chang's father was among those soldiers. Later, to escape reprisal, many fled with their families to refugee camps before resettling in the U.S. Thousands have come to the Central Valley.

Chang, who is 50, left Laos in 1979. He spent a decade at a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand, where he met his wife. When they moved from the camp to Merced with three small children in 1989, Chang spoke little English.

He began taking classes at Merced College and got a job as a teacher's aide. He earned an associate's degree in social services and eventually began working at Lao Family, where he spent seven years as a counselor and interpreter. He speaks with a thick accent, but his English is otherwise perfect.

The city hired him five years ago. His official job title is police community aide. "I just think of myself as a helper," Chang said.

A small, earnest man and a father of seven, he wears a tie to work every day. He starts promptly at 8 a.m. by checking his voicemail for urgent messages. Besides police officers and other city employees who need help helping residents who speak only Hmong or Lao, members of the public often contact Chang directly.

"The Southeast Asian community is a very centralized community here," Matthews explained. "Even if they haven't met Gao yet, they've heard about him from people they know." Lao Family and other agencies also distribute his business cards.

When he's not responding to police calls -- some days he gets none, others he spends rushing between them well into the night -- Chang sets to work translating written materials and coordinating a number of programs aimed at helping Merced's Southeast Asian residents adapt and prosper.

He interprets classes for parents about how to keep their kids out of gangs. He organizes quarterly meetings between city officials and heads of the community's 18 major Southeast Asian clans.

He also leads monthly educational gatherings open to all community members, where he discusses topics that can be especially vexing to Hmong immigrants. He cites statistics that say 85 percent of Southeast Asian immigrants own guns and that their families are far more likely to be affected by domestic violence and gambling addiction.

"So those are the things we talk about," Chang said. "We tell them about gun safety, and we've passed out gun locks. We talk about domestic violence and gambling, and we also just explain the laws here and programs that can help them."

Chang, who also speaks Thai, is the third person to hold his position, which the city created in 1990. Part of his salary is funded by a federal grant; the city pays the rest. Besides Chang, the police department employs one other community aide, a Spanish speaker.

Chang's predecessor, city councilman Noah Lor, described the role as "a bridge between two cultures."

"In our culture it's OK to discipline your children harshly," Lor explained. "We believe that a perfect eclipse means a demon is eating the moon and that you should shoot guns into the sky to stop it. Here, you can get in big trouble for those things."

He said Chang helps educate the police about Hmong culture as much as he helps Hmong residents understand local laws. "Our officers need to be aware of the differences so they're not pulling guns on people who don't even realize they're doing something wrong," Lor said. "A little understanding on both sides can go a long way."

Chang agrees. He said the only part of the job he doesn't like is testifying in criminal trials. He added that he feels "honored" to come to work each day.

"I'm very happy to have this opportunity to help the community," he said. "Coming to a new country where everything is different -- it can be very hard.

"But it doesn't have to be like that."

Thanks to Chang, it's been easier for a lot of Hmong and Lao Mercedians.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or

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