By Amy Ritter
For many Hmong people in Laos after the Vietnam War, the future was death or near-impossible escape, and it is here where Choua (Vang ’08) LeMay’s story began.
Choua’s mother, Chia Cha, fled Laos with her six-month old, Zar, while Choua’s father Cha Vang was studying medicine in Thailand. After nearly losing Zar in the Mekong River, husband and wife miraculously found each other in a Thai refugee camp, where three more Vangs were born. Through an American colleague, Cha Vang got a sponsorship and by 1979 the family had emigrated to St. Paul, where five more children were born, including Choua.
Public housing and hot dish
The Vangs loved their new abode in St. Paul public housing.
“We thought it was so big and my parents felt fortunate,” Choua said, “because in Thailand they had a one-room mud house and no electricity, no heating, no water—so this was like an upgrade!”
With limited play space inside, Choua remembers running outside a lot. One morning they watched a school bus pull up and an older couple, Mary and Tom Stimac, got off the bus and offered to take the Vang kids to church every Sunday. Without a pause, Choua’s parents said, “Sure!”
At church, Choua and her siblings realized they were different. “Kids would make fun of our clothes because we wore the same ones every Sunday,” Choua recalled. “And the adults always felt really sorry for us…which made us feel really awkward.”
The family met a new test in acclimating to American culture. Ignorance about ordinary things, like hot dish and underwear, built up an overwhelming embarrassment and shame.
Trading animism for salvation
By junior high, they had stopped going to church, but Choua’s spiritual experiences intensified.
“Hmong culture is really wrapped around animism, which is our interaction with and respect for the spirit world,” she explained. “I was always afraid. I didn’t have the freedom to live life because I was so afraid.”
Curiosity about the supernatural led Choua, her sisters and some neighbor girls to make a Ouija board and they began using it daily. Demonic spirits would tell them their birthdays and innocent details, but one morning they encountered an aggressive spirit that screamed, “I’m going to kill you all.”
“I remember that was a pivotal point in God speaking to me and saying, ‘These things are real and you need to walk away,’” Choua said.
Her fear heightened and she cried out to God. At school, her best friend gave her a pamphlet about salvation. As Choua read every word, church memories from her childhood began to make sense, moving her to tears. She went home and shared the pamphlet with her sisters, who wept with her.
The sisters called the Stimacs, who were overjoyed, saying they had been praying for the girls every day. Throughout high school, Choua had been torn between strict parents and rebellious friends, but she decided to follow Jesus when she was 19.
“Ultimately God used everything in my life to protect me,” she concluded.
New life at Northwestern
At age 22, Choua was ready to go to college, and her only contact was a Northwestern admission counselor, T.K., an Asian American woman whom she had met at a college fair. Choua saw in Northwestern a faith community she wanted desperately.
“I just hungered for those relationships with other brothers and sisters in my stage of life,” she said. “Northwestern was where I met a lot of them.”
At NWC, Choua also met her husband Kendall LeMay ’07, and they have one daughter, River. Choua now works in Admissions in the position once held by the counselor who brought her to Northwestern.
Looking back over her life, Choua now offers one simple explanation: “It was God’s grace.”