Monday, April 13, 2009

The Four Burmese Guys and Me: Basically our First Session Together

As I write this, I am watching the movie Caddyshack, a film that I basically wasn't that into until recently when I did realize a subtle comedic brilliance to it. This isn't that pertinent except for that it makes me consider the luxuries I have as someone born and raised as an American. This is naturally a somewhat cliche thing to begin a post about refugee immigrants with. The first thing one realizes when working with such people is how little they have upon their arrival, and then the amount of amenities we take for granted as Americans; my family is by no means that rich or well off, but I still have Comcast, two TVs, two computers, and all the money I need to over indulge myself with high caloric foods to keep myself overweight. That's just a taste of the reflection that working with people from other cultures can have on your own.

And there it is: food. It is actually over food that my first real meeting with the four Burmese Chin immigrants came to pass. These four are from Burma, or Myanmar. They don't speak English very well at all, of course, and although that fact makes them labeled and disadvantaged in the US, one should recognize that they do already speak 3 languages: Burmese, Malay, and their Chin language. The Chin people are an ethnic minority in Burma and are hated and oppressed by their totalitarian government. They were never in a refugee camp because there are not camps in Burma or at its borders, but instead, were constantly on the run from the Burmese military that would put them in jail or forced labor for merely being Chin (and Christian I should mention, the Chins were Christianized by I believe Baptist missionaries). So calling them refugees I guess is kind of incorrect, but perhaps it is useful to indicate what is basically their situation in the US.

Their names, which I am still trying to get right, are Tawk Zel (age 22), Khua Tin Han (35 or so), Neng Sian Lian (45), and John (22). They live in a pretty shabby apartment on Roosevelt Road and Blanchard in Wheaton. I met them earlier in an extraordinarily awkward first meeting mediated by Jenna, the volunteer coordinator for World Relief, and another Chin man who spoke English and lived in the same apartment. That is one plus, actually, that there already are a lot of other Chin living near them and have some community base. At this first meeting, we got it through to them that I was going to be their American friend and would see them sometimes, that's about as far as I think we got.

Therefore, because of the mere simplicity our interactions must take, I constantly wonder what is going through their heads. For one thing, the fact that I was chosen to be their friend, and that they didn't chose me, seems like it may be a strange concept, at least to a Westerner like myself. But maybe they haven't considered that at all. I often wonder if they question my sincerity, or why I would want to try to spend time with them, but again, with more consideration I think both of these anxieties are figments of my own culturally constituted psyche. Hopefully, they truly appreciate me as much as they can and believe that I am making an effort to help them assimilate and get the feel of our commercially consumer-driven society.

So today, I arrive at 6:15pm as I told them before a previous time I stopped by. I had to stop in a second time, after the first meeting, to change the time we were to meet because I had work. This was another event I was anxious about completing, but got through. This time, we were planning on playing football (soccer, to the layman) the international language, which was practically all I could think of to do with them considering our linguistic barrier. Unfortunately, the weather was cold and rainy, and there was no soccer to be played at all. Arriving at their door, they let me in right away, and said sit down, about the most complex thing they can basically say (I don't mean to sound condescending, but it gives you an idea of the level we can communicate verbally). So, I said, no football today, we can do something else. I had brainstormed all day about what I could possibly to with them if soccer was rained out. I thought of driving them around and pointing out community essentials, like the library, hospital, and Wheaton College. So there we were, sitting around awkwardly trying to decide. But they got the picture and as they spoke among themselves, I asked if they needed to go and buy food. They responded in the overwhelmingly affirmative. First deciding who of the four should go, to which I responded by holding up four fingers, which they understood meant that they all could come.

So we all packed into my piece of shit little car and drove to the Jewel near their house, which is also right next to where I work, Huntington Learning Center. As we walked by Huntington I pointed out to them and said "my work, my work". The parents inside waiting in the lobby looked back at me pointing in their direction with overwhelming confusion and a health dose of indignation. Hence, I moved on into the store pretty quickly.

Once we were in there, the guys basically knew what to do. I didn't think I'd have to explain to them how to use a shopping cart and what not; they had been to the store before. But naturally, I was fascinated and not surprised by what they chose to purchase. I wonder if most of the things in the aisles were unknown to them, like cereal, most spices, processed foods, etc. But I don't certainly don't think they all were. In any case, they pretty much bought purely raw meats and fruits and vegetables, pure salt, sugar, toilet paper, and Coca-Cola. Man, you cannot escape that stuff. But looking at the guys, obesity is clearly not a problem to them with their native diet. God, I hate American food sometimes, but most of the time, I love it.

We packed the food into the car, which already had a pretty full trunk, and had to squeeze along side my soccer ball and cleats and gym bag had I brought for soccer. Neng Sian Lian looked at them and laughed as he said "very big." Of course, my big, well-nourished body towers over all of them. As soon as we arrived at their apartment, Tawk, before even putting all the groceries away (with which I tried meagerly to help with) put on some Chin music videos. The guys have a DVD player and small TV, as well as a book of DVDs and we watched some very basic video of Burma. The people in the video were singing and doing some very simple dancing, featuring views of their countryside and traditional lifestyle. These videos are spliced with clips of some campy scenes from the Gospel being reenacted from some old cheap Christian film.

Neng Sian Lian offered me a Coke, which I thought would be rude not to accept, so I drank it and had an apple at the same time, which is a strange combination. What I couldn't figure out was why Tawk put these videos on so immediately. Maybe, I thought, because he wanted to show me and relax, or maybe I thought, because they are all he has as vision of his homeland that is gone forever. Maybe he missed watching them like he misses his home, or they'll simple all he has to watch, at least that's in a language they can speak. I wonder if they think about home all the time, if they want to go back. They must. They must have family and friends they miss dearly, and they must be afraid of this suburban landscape that has them trapped into a small apartment, with campy videos to watch as their only communion with their homeland, their identity.

But I think that's all I'll say on the matter. I must iterate that it's not as if these men just came from a completely traditional lifestyle into America. They must be pretty familiar with Western trends. Nothing is more evident of this than their clothes. John's clothing was quite nice and trendy, even for America. His jeans looked almost designer brand, and he wore a pretty sweet Nike track jacket. But they do need help. They need help assimilating and learning to live in this very individually driven culture (as opposed to more family based, which America is certainly not as much compared to most Eastern cultures, sorry to generalize).

After having half my Coke, I told them I had to leave, but that we would meet again on Wednesday to play football. I'm certainly looking forward to that, to slowly getting to know them, and for them to get to know me. I hope over time that I can learn each of their stories, about life in Burma as a Chin, and about their feelings on America so far. I know that Neng Sian Lian has children he is separated from in Burma. That must be awful, and soccer will not alleviate such longing. But over time, I know I can help. Hopefully, by driving them around today, I already have.

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