Kao Chiem Chao:
By Pamela Burdman
When Kao Chiem Chao became a leader of the Iu Mien people in the Bay Area, he was following in the footsteps of his father, who was chief of Orange Tree village back in Laos from before Chao was born.
Their situations could hardly look more different.
Chao’s father, Saengchiem Saechao, wore loose-fitting black cotton garb and regularly walked the daylong route from Orange Tree to the city of Namkheng, where he represented the village’s thirty extended families before the Iu Mien people’s High Council. Son of a middle priest, Saechao was a small merchant by profession. Though never formally elected, he served in the leadership role for some forty years, until his death in 1994.
Chao, forty, wears button-down shirts and V-neck sweaters and drives daily roundtrips between Oakland and San Francisco to hold down a full-time hospital interpreter job and a half-time position as a medical records technician. In his spare time, he also leads the 5,000-person Iu Mien community as chairman of the Oakland Central Council. Elected by secret ballot, he will leave the post in 2003 because of term limits. He is also a board member of the nonprofit Lao Iu Mien Cultural Association.
Despite the outward differences, however, Chao says his role is very similar to his father’s role in Orange Tree village.
"He taught me a lot," said Chao, who has early memories of villagers stopping by the house to seek his father’s assistance in settling disputes. "He always said, ‘Be fair.’ You cannot just listen to one side or the other. The truth is always somewhere in between," Chao said.
Like his father, Chao often finds himself staying up until the wee hours trying to resolve family disputes.
Recently, he got involved in mediating a marital spat between a young man and a woman who suspected each other of having affairs. The man’s parents had gotten involved and began calling Chao every day to help.
So, on a Sunday afternoon, the man, his wife, his parents, his brother and sister-in-law, two district leaders, as well as an Iu Mien priest all came to Chao’s house.
"I tried to find out who is right or wrong," he recalled. "It wasn’t one or the other, they just didn’t communicate enough to understand each other. They both admitted they made mistakes. They need to pull out some firewood and let the fire die down a little."
The couple made up, but not until after midnight, forcing Chao’s family to prepare dinner for the whole gathering. "That has happened many, many times," said Chao. "Sometimes I say my labor is more than money can buy. It’s kind of tiring sometimes. But, in the end, when you see good results, that makes you proud of yourself. I saw my father do that many, many times."
Chao’s father was selected in the traditional Iu Mien way: "They just thought that he was an honest man, and he cared about people, so they chose him," said Chao, who seems to share his father’s modesty. "So far the Mien have never had anyone volunteer and say, ‘I want to be this or that.’"
Chao’s most vivid memory of his father’s leadership was the secret meeting he held in Namkheng in 1975 to announce a plan to evacuate the entire village to protect the men from being sent to re-education camps by Vietnamese communists. The next night, after tricking the communists into leaving the village, Saechao led the 360 villagers through the forest in silence to the bank of the Mekong River, where Thai boat drivers were waiting to ferry them to safety.
Chao and his family spent the next five years in a Thai refugee camp, and it was there that Chao first became a leader. Traditionally, leaders have to be over thirty years old, but because he spoke Thai, the hundred Iu Mien people in his building within the camp pressed him into action interfacing with Thai officials.
Later, Chao served informally as an organizer for the Iu Mien in the Bay Area, and when he turned thirty, he was formally elected Council chairman by a majority of the 3,000 Iu Mien people in the area.
Chao believes he was chosen because he understands both the older Iu Mien generation and the younger generation’s American ways. "The elderly don’t adjust as quickly here," he said. "Sometimes illness is not just disease. The language barrier can make them sick. The environment can make them feel sick."
The Central Council, composed of Chao and three other leaders, oversees eight districts, which each have one to four leaders. The districts are not determined geographically; rather, they are networks of people from the same village.
"In Laos, when there’s a problem, there’s no place else to go. No matter what, you have to resolve it within your village. Here, some people go directly to the police, but most say, ‘Since we have our own community, we’ll see if it can be resolved there first.’"
Marital problems are just one kind of difficulty that the leaders deal with. "Sometimes people cannot find a house because a family member is involved in a gang and the landlord wants to evict them," said Chao. "You have to help them find another place. Or maybe that individual has to move out."
One time, when a Mien family’s son was shot near an elementary school, the council helped the family by comforting them, raising money, organizing the burial ritual, and interpreting for police investigators. Another time, when a Mien infant who had been removed from his parents by authorities later died in foster care, Chao and other leaders organized a protest at San Francisco City Hall.
Though his father has always been his prime role model, Chao says leaders here have to be open to the American system. He has introduced innovations such as term limits, for example. "You’ve got to train somebody else," he said. But he also admits that he looks forward to some down time when his term expires. "I know it still won’t end," said Chao. "Our Mien people are like an extended family. They don’t care if you’re in the position or not, they come to you anyway."
Chao also supports the notion of allowing women to be leaders. "So far, it’s all men," said Chao. "Next term, maybe each district will have to have one woman. It’s better for women to deal with women if they have a problem."
Still, there will always be a need for male leaders, as only they can perform religious ceremonies. "If there’s fighting between two teenagers, we don’t just say, ‘Shake hands and never fight again.’ We do a blessing and sacrifice a chicken."
Even Chao’s surname is an indication of his openness to change: He shortened it from Saechao to Chao because Americans were always separating the two syllables.
But despite his adaptability, Chao’s vision of leadership is still the one he learned from his father.
"Here they have campaigns to be the leader," said Chao. "In our culture, even if you’re a leader, you don’t want to be a leader. It’s more what you do than what you say. That’s the only way you get respect from the community, because you’re a family man and you work like everyone else."