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From Laos to Detroit, an intergenerational journey

Nov 13, 2015

The Detroit neighborhood where Richard Chang lives has changed. A lot.

 

Chang moved into the Osborn neighborhood in 1980 “because the economy in Michigan was really good,” he says.

That changed dramatically, of course. And now Chang is wondering what the future holds for his children.

 

After living in Detroit for nearly two decades, the Chang family moved to Warren in the ‘90s. A lot of other Hmong families did the same thing. But then Richard Chang lost his job and house during the recession. So he moved the family back to Detroit, where he was able to buy a house for $10,000.

He eventually found a new job, at a stamping plant in Livonia. He works every night until 10 p.m. He’s exhausted and overworked, and he’d like to retire. But he thinks he’ll need to work for another 10 years.

He just hopes his kids can find their footing in an economy that’s a lot tougher than when he arrived in the U.S.

 

An old portrait of Richard Chang, front and center, with his five brothers.
Credit Zak Rosen / Michigan Radio

All these years later, Chang has been married twice. He has 11 kids and stepkids. Six of them still live in the family’s modest home in northeast Detroit.

Over a pot of boiled pork soup with lemongrass and pumpkin leaves from their backyard garden, I sit with Richard Chang, talking about his past and his kids’ future around the dinner table.

 

Dinner with The Chang Family from Apiary Projects on Vimeo.

Chang’s 17-year-old daughter, Bea, wants to be an illustrator. This past spring, she was named valedictorian of her graduating class at Osborn Math, Science and Technology. She earned a 3.9 GPA along with her diploma. Her counselor from Osborn MST gave her financial aid forms and scholarship applications. But Bea’s not going to college – not yet, anyway.

Bea Chang, left, at home with her sisters, Kalia, Mika, Shannon and Shannon's son.
Credit Zak Rosen / Michigan Radio

"If I dive into school right now. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be like, 'Dad, help me pay for my college books,' which I kind of don’t want to do cause we’re already pretty poor,” she says. “It’d be awful if I just kept asking for help buying college books. So [I’ll] take this year off, work a little bit more. Save up some money and I won’t have to ask.”

Bea says she just wasn’t ready. Meanwhile, her dad is feeling anxious.

“Look at now Bea. She want to draw. I say Bea, it’s hard to find a job when you’re drawing,” he says. “You need engineer or computer or nurse or anything. Bea only draw and draw and draw and draw.”

To Richard Chang, a career in the arts doesn’t compute. He’s hoping his youngest, Kalia, will choose a different path.

 

“I prefer she go to nurse or computer engineering,” he says. “Technology.”

"I prefer not to be an artist, like Bea ... I like how machines and stuff work."

Kalia, who's only in the sixth grade, obediently responds.

“A nurse could be fine, but I don’t know about computer engineer,” she says. “I prefer not to be an artist, like Bea. Nope. I don’t want to. I like how machines and stuff work.”

By many measures, Chang is living the American Dream. He’s got a house, a family, a car, a job, and a fishing boat. He loves fishing in the Detroit River.

On Sundays, Richard Chang goes to church with his family. When he’s there, he says he prays to God to guide and bless his kids. He prays that they will go to college and prays they’ll graduate, and he prays that they’ll find decent jobs.

Bringing up Detroit is brought to you with support from the Skillman Foundation. Kids matter here.