Mary Beth Meehan

Pang – Providence, RI

Pang – Providence, RI

Pang works at Chick-fil-A, at the Warwick Mall. While fast-food customers purchase chicken sandwiches and waffle fries, she stands in the back kitchen, washing lettuce, chopping tomatoes, making cole slaw.

But today is Sunday, and she is ready for church. She is wearing a brocaded jacket and a string of pearls, with a silver flower pinned to her lapel. Her hair is smoothed back into a bun.

I was invited last night to a dinner at the Hmong Church of Providence, a congregation of Hmong people from Laos who gather in an early-1900s church building on the West End’s Dexter Street. I saw Pang and was drawn to her open face and soft demeanor. Someone told me that she is the pastor’s wife. I asked her if I could make her portrait.

This morning, while the congregation is preparing for the service, Pang and I meet. We make some photographs inside the church, and then step out and over to the park across the street. A light snow has fallen overnight. Then we go to her husband’s office to talk.

Men and women mill around outside the office door, drinking coffee; someone darts in to Xerox the church bulletin. Pang tells me about her work, her thirteen children (including three sets of twins), and her life here in Rhode Island. Her husband, Yee Heu, is with us, to help translate her words into English. They have been here for three years.

I notice a black-and-white photograph pinned above his desk, of a man and a woman with three small children, standing outside a straw-roofed house. The woman is dressed in traditional clothing. The littlest child is a girl, with the same  open face that I’ve just photographed.

“That’s me,” says Pang, shown outside her family’s home in Laos, in the mid-1960s, just before the Vietnam War bore down on their village. “During the war,” says Yee, “the Americans came to our country, and they recruit the Hmong people to serve with them, against the North Vietnamese. We served with the American side, with the CIA, and that’s why we all ended up here.”

Pang remembers leaving her house and moving from place to place, as her family tried to stay safely ahead of the war. Her parents would hear that the North Vietnamese were approaching, and they would all pick up and move – into the jungle, fashioning homes out of branches, grass, whatever they could find. “We just decide to go,” says Yee. “You want to die today? You stay. You want to live another day? Just move.”

“And we don’t take anything,” says Pang. “Just take only one or two pair of clothes – that’s it.”