The American Dream in Garden City, via Burma and beef
The tiny girl who opens the door is so excited to have visitors that she shouts to them as they get out of their car, “Hurry, hurry!”
Veronica Thang, a three-year-old dressed head to toe in pink, was showing off her new nail color.
“What color?” asks Velia Mendoza, the visitor.
And on the other hand? “What color?”
We stepped into the home, where a TV in the living room was blasting Caillou, a French Canadian cartoon on PBS, and Moung Thang, Veronica’s father, was watching the clock. He works the B-shift at the huge Tyson meatpacking plant on the outskirts of the city, so he was set to work 1 p.m.-11 p.m.
The American Dream is alive and well and living in Garden City, Kan. It’s just that this dream is described in Burmese and it’s fueled by beef production.
I was introduced to the Thang family by Mendoza, the coordinator of the refugee center at Garden City Community College. With a mixture of Midwestern friendliness, tons of encouragement and a ready, melodious laugh, Mendoza and her staff offer the many newcomers assistance with jobs, transportation, translation and English classes.
When Mendoza began work here in 2009, she was serving 100 refugees. That figure has doubled, as Somalis and Burmese continue to stream into this southwestern Kansas town, lured by the promise of jobs at the Tyson plant that start at $13.50 an hour.
It’s Mendoza’s job to help the refugees with eight months of assistance in the form of cash, food and medical care, thanks to state and federal grants. That means her small, boxy white building across the street from the college always has a full parking lot, with people coming in for English-as-a-second language classes, assistance with government documents and help in signing their children up for school.
“Our job is to help them find a job, help them find an apartment and make them self-sufficient,” she said. “Once they have that – a job and an apartment – they feel pretty good.”
Mendoza is a natural for the job because she migrated to Garden City from Mexico when she was a child, her father working undocumented at one of the many feedlots that circle the city. When she was 18, she went to work at the Tyson slaughterhouse, and spent three years trimming hides that had just been peeled off the cattle. The work carried a foul smell and was very physical -- even though she was young, the repetitive motion made her hands swell and her back ache.
“It was enough to tell me ‘Nope. I’m going back to school. This is not what I want to do,’” she said.
By the 1980s, the family was eligible for the Reagan-era amnesty program. Mendoza went back to school and got an education degree.
So she understands Thang’s journey here. After arriving in the U.S. from a refugee camp in Malaysia, he worked briefly as a housekeeper in Columbia, Mo., but moved to Garden City for a better-paying job to support his wife, Sanda, and their three children.
The Thangs, who are Chin, a Burmese ethnic group, have been in the U.S. nearly five years, long enough to save for this house and see to it that the children attend St. Dominic’s, the local Catholic school. The children, who have Chin and Christian names, include son Michael, 5, who is in Kindergarden, Veronica, in pre-school, and a one-year-old baby.
Talking with the Thangs was difficult – we had a native speaker with us, but some ideas, I thought, were literally lost in translation. I’d ask a long question and Moung and Sanda would say, “yes,” and we’d all laugh.
Moung works on what’s called the “kill floor” at Tyson, where the freshly-slaughtered cattle are sliced up piecemeal and eventually boxed for sale. The floor is kept hot, so the blood drains more easily from the animal, and the work he does – slicing cheek meat from the cattle -- is tough for the small man.
But the Thangs are obviously proud of their home, where Moung is busy remodeling and Sanda is growing a huge garden in the backyard. Moung takes English classes at the refugee center, but it’s been difficult to pick up the language and it's time away from his family.
I asked them what they want for their children.
“They’re hoping they turn out to be an educated people, like doctor, engineer,” the translator said. “She wants her children to study hard and be an educated person. She wants to be proud of her children.”
The couple share the goal of wanting to speak better English – without that skill, Moung is locked in at the Tyson plant, as other companies most often won’t hire those who can’t speak the language. But he dreams of becoming fluent and returning to work as an electrician, which he did in his native country.
As he told us that, Mendoza perked up and came through with her usual encouragement and tips on where to get assistance.
“Mr. Moung, at the college, they do have classes for electricians so your English – keep working! And we’ll move you to your class and you can be a certified electrician.”
The refugee center was just one place I spent time while in Garden City. As I’ve promised earlier, Harvest Public Media is preparing to publish a series of stories about the children of immigrant workers in Midwestern meatpacking plants, part of an Institute for Justice and Journalism program. My colleague, Abbie Swanson, and I are busy now writing and producing our pieces and look forward to sharing them with you.
In the meantime, I’m grateful to have spent time with these new Americans, whose dreams are just as understandable as our own.